The recently unsealed legal cases over Empire Navigation’s Suez Rajan have shed new light on a VLCC that delivered illicit cargo to the Greek shipowner’s suezmax tanker.

And it has raised questions about why the 306,000-dwt Virgo (built 2002) remains unsanctioned by Washington even as US officials accuse it of furtive cargo transfers, and why it remains flagged by one of the world’s largest ship registries.

As TradeWinds has reported, recently unsealed documents show that Greece’s Empire and a shipowning affiliate have agreed to pay a $2.47m fine in what the US Justice Department describes as the first-ever “criminal resolution” of a case involving the illicit transfer of Iranian oil.

And the US government has secured a court order to sell the cargo that was offloaded from the ship, arguing that it should be forfeited because the oil was part of a scheme to fund the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force.

The documents show the 159,000-dwt Suez Rajan (built 2011), which was operated by Empire, received the sanctioned oil from the Virgo in February 2022, after the suezmax took on about 4,000 legal barrels from another vessel — the 300,000-dwt CS Brilliance (built 1998).

But the Suez Rajan was not alone, according to documents in the civil forfeiture case that resulted in the seizure of the cargo on the suezmax while it was anchored off Texas.

Lawyers for the administration of US President Joe Biden submitted images to a federal court in Washington DC that they said depicts either ship-to-ship transfers of Iranian oil or loadings of the nation’s volumes at the Kharg Oil Terminal.

According to recently unsealed documents, they told a judge in March that they learned from a paid confidential source that the ship had hauled at least 18m barrels of Iranian crude to China, either through such cargo transfers or direct shipments.

United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a non-profit group that tracks Tehran’s energy exports and tipped off officials to the Suez Rajan transfer, already had the Virgo on its radar when it delivered nearly 1m barrels to the suezmax last year.

Chief of staff Claire Jungman, who leads the ship tracking programme, told TradeWinds the vessel is one of several that she watches every day.

However, the VLCC is not listed on the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) list of sanctioned vessels. That is despite the evidence of furtive cargo transfers and even though the US Treasury Department has labelled the shipping network of the Revolutionary Guards as “terror proxies” in 2019, and even though one shipping company has already admitted to taking cargo from the vessel while its location transponder was not broadcasting.

Claire Jungman is chief of staff at United Against Nuclear Iran. She also leads the ship tracking programme. Photo: UANI

Jungman said US officials should help the shipping industry by sanctioning such vessels.

The US Treasury Department, of which Ofac is a part, did not immediately respond to TradeWinds’ request for comment on why the Virgo has not faced sanctions.

Another source of consternation to UANI is the fact that the Virgo is among a large fleet of tankers that serve Iran’s oil cargoes and are flagged in Panama, which was the world’s largest ship registry until recently losing the top spot to Liberia.

“Panama has an obligation to look at the vessels that they are allowing to fly its flag and prevent them from violating sanctions,” Jungman told TradeWinds.

The Panama Maritime Authority did not immediately respond to TradeWinds’ request for comment.

The French transport ministry’s Equasis database lists the Virgo’s owner as Suriname-registered Rising Phoenix Provider and its manager as Mariziya Shipping of India. Contact information was not available for either company.

A satellite image shows the location broadcast by the Virgo’s transponder. No vessel is to be seen. Photo: US Justice Department

Databases by ship valuation platform VesselsValue and broker Clarksons list the ship as controlled by India’s Atlantic Navigation, which could not be immediately reached for comment.

According to court records, the US Justice Department alleged that the Virgo was using a secondary AIS transponder to broadcast a false location in the Middle East Gulf on 17 January of last year, while European Space Agency satellite imagery showed it loading at Kharg Island, the location of a key Iranian oil export terminal.

Then on 14 February, the Virgo transferred just over 976,000 barrels to the Suez Rajan at an anchorage near Singapore, US court filings alleged.

The Suez Rajan continued to broadcast its location information, but the Virgo’s transponder broadcast a location that was eight miles (13 km) away, US officials said. Satellite imagery showed the Virgo alongside the Suez Rajan, and no ship at the VLCC’s reported location.