Iranian ships raising red flags

During the second half of 2016, ships transporting almost a fifth of Iran’s oil exports turned off their radio-signal tracking systems or reported misleading information regarding the origin of their cargo—warning signs for governments seeking evidence of evasion of international sanctions against Tehran.

According to an analysis of ships belonging to two United Arab Emirates-based companies, 47 of 55 ships carrying Iranian oil products from Iran to the U.A.E. failed to emit signals from the system that transmits their position and course, for a portion or all of their journey. The analysis was compiled for The Wall Street Journal by ship-tracker Windward Ltd., an Israeli company that uses satellite imaging to map shipping routes.

The Wall Street Journal reported that “The shipments, made by two U.A.E.-registered traders, Silk Road Petroleum FZE and Petrochemix General Trading LLC, accounted for 17% of Iran’s fuel-oil and gas-oil exports during the six-month period, according to records compiled by the oil-product traders.”

The records listed the ships’ cargo as fuel oil or gas oil.

There is no penalty for ships that do not employ the tracking systems, although shipping guidelines advise vessels to use the systems to avoid collisions between ships or to assist in locating them should they require rescue.

Andrew Bardot, chief executive of IGP&I, an association of marine liability insurers, said that ships sometimes disable their tracking systems to evade pirates.

“This tactic can also be used to hide the genuine details of a voyage so as to enable the breach of sanctions,” said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, a London-based trade organization established to fight maritime crime and malpractice.

A U.S. official said that ship movements in the Persian Gulf are being analyzed by the U.S. government to detect any attempt to circumvent bans on funding Iran’s weapons programs or clearing payments for Iranian oil through the U.S. financial system.

U.S. officials reported that they were unfamiliar with specific shipments identified by the Journal.

Scrutiny of shipping practices in the Persian Gulf comes amid uncertainty in the U.S. regarding the future of the 2015 multinational agreement in which Iran pledged to scale back its nuclear program in return for the lifting of most international sanctions.

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