U.S. oil companies have been authorized to import limited amounts of oil from Iran and send their payments to an escrow fund established to pay claims won against the Iranian government by Americans.

The imports were authorized by President Bush in early November, according to State Department officials.

The payments go into an escrow account overseen by the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, an organization set up in The Hague in 1981 to arbitrate commercial disputes between U.S. claimants and Iran.

"Last month we decided to license the import of Iranian oil into the United States on a case-by-case basis where the proceeds of the transaction are to be deposited in the security account," State Department spokeswoman Sondra McCarty said last night.

"If such transactions occur, this will help ensure that there are adequate funds available to pay tribunal awards to U.S. claimants. To date, over $2 billion has been transferred from the security account in satisfaction of tribunal awards to U.S. claimants," she said.

The addition of oil to items that can be imported from Iran on a case-by-case basis was reported initially by Platt's Week, an oil industry newsletter.

U.S. officials said the main reason for allowing oil imports was to help keep the escrow account funded. But they acknowledged the move creates an additional oil supply in the event of war in the Middle East.