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US Charges Iranian Oil Shipping Network With Sanctions Evasion

The U.S. unsealed an indictment this month charging seven people with helping Iran violate U.S. sanctions through a billion-dollar smuggling network that sold oil to buyers in China, Russia and Syria. DOJ also seized $108 million that the network tried to launder through correspondent accounts at U.S. banks.

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The indictment outlines charges against an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps network created to allow the country’s government-owned National Iranian Oil Company to sell crude oil and petroleum products. The network helped transport millions of barrels of Iranian energy to government-owned and -affiliated buyers in Syria, Russia and China, DOJ said, saying people and companies in the scheme transferred billions of dollars through the U.S. banking system in violation of U.S. sanctions.

The charges target senior Iran military official Behnam Shahriyari; Morteza Rostam Ghasemi, son of Iranian military commander Rostam Ghasemi; Mohammadreza Aliakbari, senior officer of Safiran Payam Darya Shipping Company; and IRGC agent Mohammad Sadegh Karimian. Also indicted was Turkish national Sitki Ayan, who has a “long history” of selling Iranian energy and owns the ASB Group of companies; Bahaddin Ayan, his son and vice president of ASB; and Kasim Oztas, managing director of ASB. The Treasury Department has previously sanctioned each for supporting Iran and terrorism.

DOJ said the group used Sitki Ayan's ASB companies in Turkey and other intermediary companies in Oman, Greece and elsewhere to sell Iranian oil to China. Those companies hid the Iranian government’s involvement in the sales and concealed that the oil was from Iran, the agency said, including by leasing tankers.

Bahaddin Ayan sent millions of dollars in wire transfers through U.S. bank accounts to lease the tankers, DOJ said, and Oztas helped finalize agreements with companies involved in the shipments. Shahriyari, a senior official with the IRGC Qods Force, along with Karimian and Aliakbari, helped negotiate the agreements and “monitored the progress” of the sales. DOJ said IRGC commander Ghasemi, who wasn’t indicted as part of this scheme, helped to resolve “financial disputes that arose among the participants in the scheme.”

The network used similar tactics to sell Iranian oil to Syria and Russia. They used an intermediary company in Lebanon and a ship management company in India to sell to Syria, DOJ said, and used companies in the United Arab Emirates, Cyprus, Russia and Turkey to sell to Russia. Shahriyari and Karimian used a “complex web” of companies, including ASB businesses, to launder proceeds through “layered transactions” with a Cypriot company, DOJ said. They also laundered the oil sales through “bulk cash smuggling and trade-based money laundering involving Russian agricultural products.”

DOJ said one of the “key” front companies involved in the scheme was China Oil and Petroleum Company, which was controlled by Ghasemi and other Iranians. The company acted as an intermediary for sales of NIOC oil and helped broker deals involving ASB companies and buyers in China. Since 2019, DOJ said, the company has been involved in transferring more than $2 billion through the U.S. financial system to finance the IRGC’s Qods Force.

Attorney General Merrick Garland also said the U.S. is seizing over $108 million and 500,000 barrels of fuel that “would otherwise have enabled Iran to further its destabilizing activities that threaten our national security.” He said DOJ “will continue to use every authority we have to cut off the illegal financing and enabling of Iran’s malicious activities, which have become even more evident in recent months.”

The agency charged each of the seven people with conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence; conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and sanctions against Iran and Syria, which also carries a maximum 20-year sentence; conspiring to commit bank and wire fraud, which carries a maximum 30-year sentence; conspiring to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence; and conspiring to defraud the U.S., which carries a maximum five-year sentence.