Seized tanker Niovi was part of legal dispute with sanctioned entities over suspected Iranian cargo
Disputed cargo was discharged in China and is suspected to have been transferred from the Oman Pride, which was sanctioned in 2021
Leaked emails show that Niovi, the VLCC seized by Iran, delivered a cargo owned by Nimr International in November 2020 that the consignee, La Mere Maritime, sold without its approval. Nimr, which transferred the cargo’s title to Türkiye-based Baslam Nakliyat shortly after, was sanctioned by the US in 2021, while Baslam, part of ASB group, was sanctioned in December of the past year
A MULTI-PARTY legal dispute over a shipment of suspected Iranian oil in November 2020 is potentially linked to the May 3 hijacking of the very large crude carrier Niovi (IMO: 9292498) by Iran’s armed forces.
The Panama-flagged vessel was the second tanker seized by Iran in the past seven days, after the Iranian navy forcefully took control of the US-bound suezmax Advantage Sweet (IMO: 9587192) on April 27.
Leaked emails from Wikiran show that the vessel Niovi called in Yantai, China in November 2020 carrying nearly 2m barrels of oil belonging to Oman-based Nimr International and Türkiye-based ASB Group affiliate Baslam Nakliyat, who were later sanctioned by the US.
The cargo itself is suspected to have originated in Iran and was received via a ship-to-ship transfer with the VLCC Oman Pride (IMO: 9153525), according to activist group United Against Nuclear Iran.
The leaked emails show that the cargo was owned and shipped by Nimr, which was controlled by Mahmood Al Habsi. However, Mr Al Habsi transferred the cargo’s title to Baslam shortly after Niovi arrived at Yantai.
In the emails, Nimr and Baslam allege that the cargo was sold by the consignee named on the bill of lading, Marshall Islands-based La Mere Maritime, without their knowledge and approval, and that they were deprived of payment.
By mid-December, about 50,000 tonnes, or 357,375 barrels remained in Yantai’s shore tanks, with three Chinese companies having taken delivery of cargoes, according to the emails.
UANI’s chief of staff Claire Jungman said that based on the emails, the group “strongly suspects” that the Niovi’s seizure is tied to the legal dispute.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported that Iran seized the Panama-flagged tanker because of a “private complaint” but offered no further details.
Lloyd’s List attempted to call La Mere using its Greece-based phone number, but the call was sent straight to voicemail. In correspondence between Baslam’s legal counsel and lawyers the company hired in China, it was noted that Baslam and La Mere “have some disputes in London”.
Baslam’s China-based lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr Al Habsi and Nimr International were sanctioned by the US along with Oman Pride in August 2021 for facilitating oil sales in support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
Baslam Nakilat was sanctioned in the past December on similar grounds, along with other companies associated with the Türkiye-based ASB Group.
While the earlier seizure of Advantage Sweet appeared to have been in retaliation for the US’ seizure of Iranian cargo on board the Greece-owned suezmax Suez Rajan (IMO: 9524475), no such connection to the US has so far emerged in the Niovi’s hijacking.
Moreoever, unlike Advantage Sweet, Niovi appeared to not be carrying oil when it was seized, with its last port call traced to a drydock in Port Rashid, Dubai. Its last Automatic Identification System signal on May 3 did not indicate that it had taken any cargo since.
A spokesperson for US State Department declined to comment on the Suez Rajan’s seizure, but said that “Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters are contrary to international law and disruptive to regional security and stability”.
Niovi’s technical and ISM management is Piraeus-based Smart Tankers Incorporated, and the beneficial owner appears to be Altomare, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence. It is believed to be ultimately controlled by Dimitris Bakos and Capt Ioannis Kaimenakis families’ interests.
A leaked recap agreement from June 2020 between Nimr and Smart Tankers shows a planned STS with Oman Pride to take place in the Gulf of Oman.
Two bills of lading were issued for the Niovis’ voyage to China in 2020, one for 1,245,065 barrels and the other for 730,000 barrels of “Omani Crude Blend”.
Other leaked emails show that La Mere was in dispute with Baslam over another Altomare-owned tanker, Carmen (IMO: 9290086), which UANI also alleges received oil via STS from Oman Pride.
In a December 2020 email, La Mere appears to be demanding that either Baslam or Nimr remit payment of $17m and release the Oman Pride crew’s passports in exchange for discharging the Carmen’s cargo in Rizhao, China.
La Mere also threatened that “pursuant to the order of Mr Justice Andrew Baker, investigations were made into the original source of the Carmen cargo. Obviously this information will need to be placed before the court if our claim is not resolved”.
The Niovi’s registered owner, Liberia-based Grand Financing Co, was also part of the legal disputes pertaining to the Niovi’s cargo, the leaked emails show.
The Standard Club explained in September 2021 commentary that Grand Financing was facing pressure by several parties claiming entitlement for the delivery of the remaining cargo in the shore tanks.
UK High Court of Justice documents from March 2021 show Grand Financing sought and was granted relief in respect of the approximately 50,855 tonnes of cargo that remained in the Yantai Oil Terminal.