An Iranian oil tanker pursued by the US has arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Friday.
The appearance of the Adrian Darya-1 in waters near Tartus comes as Iran was preparing Saturday to announce what further steps it had taken to move away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, more than a year after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord.
Both events have raised tensions between Iran and the US over recent months that have seen mysterious attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone and other incidents across the wider Middle East. The US issued a new warning of a potential threat to shipping off of Yemen early Saturday.
Bolton posted a satellite image on Twitter showing the Adrian Darya 1 two nautical miles away from the Tartus naval base.
“Anyone who said the Adrian Darya-1 wasn’t headed to #Syria is in denial. Tehran thinks it’s more important to fund the murderous Assad regime than provide for its own people. We can talk, but #Iran’s not getting any sanctions relief until it stops lying and spreading terror!” Bolton wrote.
Images obtained by the Associated Press from the US space technology company Maxar Technologies early Saturday also showed the vessel near Tartus.
Anyone who said the Adrian Darya-1 wasn’t headed to #Syria is in denial. Tehran thinks it’s more important to fund the murderous Assad regime than provide for its own people. We can talk, but #Iran’s not getting any sanctions relief until it stops lying and spreading terror! pic.twitter.com/saar05T8wt
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) September 6, 2019
The Adrian Darya 1 was held for six weeks by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion that it was set to deliver oil from Iran to its main Arab ally Syria — a violation of European Union sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad’s iron-fisted regime.
Gibraltar released the ship, formerly called the Grace 1, on August 18 over US protests after receiving written assurances that the vessel would not head to countries sanctioned by the European Union.
The tanker has been elusive since sailing off from Gibraltar, with monitors reporting that it has been moving in the eastern Mediterranean near Lebanon.
The ongoing saga comes as tensions remain high between the Us and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
Trump’s withdrawal and the imposition of heavy economic sanctions on Iran have blocked it from selling its crude oil abroad, a crucial source of government funding for the Islamic Republic.
The ship switched off its Automatic Identification System beacon on Monday, according to the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. It was some 45 nautical miles (83 kilometers) off the coast of Lebanon and Syria, heading north at its last report.
The ship’s Automatic Identification System does not show its destination after its mariners onboard previously listed it as ports in Greece and Turkey. Turkey’s foreign minister at one point suggested it would go to Lebanon, something denied by a Lebanese official.
The actions of the Adrian Darya 1 follow a pattern of other Iranian ships turning off their trackers once they reach near Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, said Ranjith Raja, a lead analyst at the data firm Refinitiv.
Based on the fact Turkey has stopped taking Iranian crude oil and Syria historically has taken around 1 million barrels of crude oil a month from Iran, Raja said it was likely the ship would be offloading its cargo in Syria. That could see it transfer crude oil on smaller vessels, allowing it to be taken to port, he said.
Iranian officials haven’t identified who bought the Adrian Darya 1’s cargo, only that it has been sold.
The US, which has sought to seize the tanker, alleged in federal court that the ship is owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary organization answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The US recently declared the Guard a terrorist organization, giving it greater power to pursue seizing its assets.
The US has been warning countries not to accept the Adrian Darya 1, which carries 2.1 million barrels of crude oil worth some $130 million.
The United States announced Wednesday that it was imposing sanctions on a shipping network alleged to be tied to the Revolutionary Guards — and offering up to $15 million for information that could disrupt the unit’s finances.
The shipping network sold more than $500 million this spring, mostly in Syria, according to the Treasury Department.
Brian Hook, the US State Department pointman on Iran, personally offered several million dollars to the Indian captain of the Adrian Darya 1, the State Department confirmed on Wednesday.
The Financial Times reported that Hook sent emails to captain Akhilesh Kumar in which he offered “good news” of millions in US cash to live comfortably if he steered the Adrian Darya 1 to a country where it could be seized.
US authorities said that Kumar, 43, took over as captain in Gibraltar. After he apparently did not respond to the US offer, the Treasury Department on Friday imposed sanctions both on the ship and on Kumar himself, freezing any assets he may have in the United States and criminalizing any US financial transactions with him.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday said Iran appeared to be nearing a situation in which talks could be held with the United States on a new deal that would limit its nuclear program “forever.”
His comments came after Trump on Wednesday left open a possible meeting in the near future with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. Iran so far has ruled out such a meeting, saying the US must first lift sanctions imposed on Tehran as part of the US pullout from the deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday acknowledged that a meeting between Trump and Rouhani, which he has vehemently opposed, could nonetheless take place in the near future.