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Iran's Revolutionary Guards Capture Oil Tanker Amid Sanctions Dispute

  • The Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Advantage Sweet was seized by Iran, with Tehran claiming retaliation for American sanctions and planning to use the oil sale proceeds to aid epidermolysis bullosa patients.
  • The US State Department criticized Iran's actions and demanded the immediate release of the tanker, amid ongoing tensions and accusations of maritime harassment.
  • Despite US sanctions excluding food and medicine, the restrictions have made it difficult for Iran to procure some drugs, affecting patients with conditions like epidermolysis bullosa, leading to international concerns over humanitarian impacts.
Oil Tanker

When Iran seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker last year, Tehran said the transporter had collided with and damaged an Iranian vessel in the Gulf of Oman.

Now, nearly one year later, Tehran said it will confiscate the cargo of the Advantage Sweet, which was transporting oil from Kuwait to the U.S. state of Texas, in retaliation for crippling American sanctions against the Islamic republic.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with Iran's judiciary, reported on March 6 that a Tehran court had ruled in favor of confiscating the oil, which is valued at around $50 million.

The 55th branch of the Tehran Court of Justice said funds from the sale of the oil will be used to compensate patients suffering from epidermolysis bullosa, a rare skin disease. The court ruled that U.S. sanctions have prevented a Swedish company from selling medicine to Iran that is used to treat the disease and caused Iranian “patients severe emotional and physical damage.”

EB Home, an Iranian nongovernmental organization representing over 300 epidermolysis bullosa patients, had brought a case against the United States in the Tehran court. In a statement following the court ruling, the NGO described U.S. sanctions as “criminal and unilateral.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller criticized the ruling and demanded that the tanker be “immediately released.”

Related: 2 Companies That Could Help Europe Win Its Energy War With Russia

“Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights and freedoms in the region’s vital waterways is a threat to maritime security, regional stability, and the global economy,” he said in a press briefing on March 6.

The U.S. military said in January that Iran was “holding five ships and over 90 members hostage” from vessels it seized in 2023. Most Iranian tanker seizures are carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of Iran’s armed forces.

Iran said it seized the Advantage Sweet in April 2023. The tanker was chartered by U.S. oil giant Chevron and was carrying oil to the U.S. port of Houston, according to ship tracking data.

Iran’s capture of the Advantage Sweet came days after the United States seized Suez Rajan, an oil tanker that was transporting sanctioned Iranian oil to China.

Months after seizing the Suez Rajan, and despite Tehran’s threats, Washington begun unloading the ship’s oil in August 2023.

Sanctions And 'Butterfly' Patients

The Tehran court’s ruling has put the spotlight on the impact of U.S. sanctions on the health sector in Iran.

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and reimposed sanctions against Tehran.

Iranians have witnessed rising prices and faced shortages of life-saving medicine -- including drugs for cancer treatment and insulin -- in recent years due to U.S. sanctions and corruption.

Related: How To Profit From Europe’s $800 Billion Energy Crisis

U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran exclude food and medicine. But in practice, the restrictions have made it difficult for Tehran to purchase some drugs, according to human rights groups.

That includes specialized bandages produced by Swedish firm Molnlycke that are used to treat epidermolysis bullosa patients, who often develop painful blisters and wounds, similar to third-degree burns. They are sometimes referred to as “butterfly” patients due to the fragility of their skin.

State Department spokesman Miller told reporters on March 6 that U.S. sanctions “have always had a carveout for humanitarian purchases.”

“We have never prevented medicine from reaching the Iranian people,” he added.

EB Home, the Iranian NGO, had previously filed an unsuccessful complaint against Molnlycke in Sweden in 2021.

In its failed complaint, the NGO claimed that Molnlycke had informed it in March 2019 correspondence that it had “decided not to conduct any business with relation to Iran for the time being. This also applies to business conducted under any form of exceptions to the US economic sanctions.”

In a 2021 report, United Nations experts warned about the consequences of “over-compliance” with U.S. sanctions on “butterfly kids,” who they said “can no longer enjoy the right to health.”

The following year, the Swedish government provided financial support to the United Nations Children's Fund to procure and deliver specialized bandages to Iran.

“The lack of availability of certain medicines and health products in Iran is a humanitarian concern, affected by the impact of the sanctions regime on financial transactions,” Sweden’s then-ambassador to Iran, Mattias Lentz, said. “We do hope a solution will be found and will continue to support such a solution.”

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