March 14, 2013 11:39 pm

US sanctions magnate shipping Iranian oil

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The US imposed sanctions on Thursday on a Greek shipping magnate who it accused of secretly helping Iran to evade tight international sanctions on its oil exports.

The Obama administration said that Dimitris Cambis, who owns a Greek shipping company, was at the centre of a “clandestine operation” to disguise the origin of Iranian oil cargoes.

US officials said that Mr Cambis and companies he controlled purchased at least eight oil tankers with the intention of filling them with Iranian oil that would be sold to international customers who were unaware of where the oil came from. Officials would not put a value on the amount of oil sold under the scheme but said that each tanker could carry up to $200m of cargo.

“Today we are lifting the veil on an intricate Iranian scheme that was designed to evade international oil sanctions,” said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury department.

Mr Cambis, whose company is called Impire Shipping, told Bloomberg that the US allegations were “very bad rumours created by our competitors because we are trying to take market share.” He could not be reached for further comment.

Under the sanctions, any assets Mr Cambis or his companies own in the US will be frozen. US companies will also be prohibited from doing business with him.

The penalties come at a time of some cautious optimism in the US and from others that talks with Iran about its nuclear programme have made modest progress in recent weeks, even if a final agreement remains distant. Under any agreement with Iran, the US will probably have to reverse some of the tight sanctions it has placed on Iran’s economy.

The news also comes before Barack Obama’s visit to Israel next week, his first as president, where he will make the case to the Israeli government and people that his strategy of sanctions and negotiations should be given some time.

In an interview with Israeli television before the visit, Mr Obama said that Iran was at least a year away from being able to develop a nuclear weapon “but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close”.

His message during the visit would be: “If we can resolve it diplomatically that is a more lasting solution. But if not I continue to keep all options on the table.”

The Pentagon said on Thursday that a US surveillance drone was approached by an Iranian fighter jet earlier this week which was then warned off by two US military aircraft escorting the drone.

George Little, Pentagon spokesman, said that the Iranian aircraft did not get within 16 miles of the drone, while the US fighters closed within two miles of the Iranian jet and fired a flame to ward it off. The encounter is one of a series of potentially dangerous incidents around the Strait of Hormuz in recent months.

Iran has seen its oil exports fall by nearly a half since new US and European sanctions were introduced last year. A senior Obama administration official said that the new measures were a “major, not a marginal step in enforcing our sanctions”.

The US also imposed sanctions on a group of companies it described as fronts for the National Iranian Tanker Company, which it said had helped purchase the oil tankers. The scheme had been stopped at “a very early stage”, officials said.

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