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Ships exporting Iranian oil go dark, raising sanctions red flags

Ships exporting Iranian oil go dark, raising sanctions red flags

WASHINGTON: Ships transporting almost a fifth of Iran’s oil exports in the second half of last year either turned off their radio-signal tracking systems or gave misleading information about the origin of their cargo, red flags for governments seeking evidence of evasion of international sanctions against Tehran. Some 47 of 55 ships carrying Iranian oil products from Iran to the United Arab Emirates for two U.A.E.-registered companies failed to emit signals from the system that transmits their position and course, for part or all of their journey, according to an analysis of the two firms’ shipments that was completed for The Wall Street Journal by ship-tracker Windward Ltd., an Israeli firm that uses satellite imaging to map shipping routes. 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, based on information from state-run National Iranian Oil Co. that shipping agents combine with their own information and provide to traders, listed the vessels’ cargo as fuel oil or gas oil. Iranian authorities didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment about the shipments.

While there is no penalty for not using the systems, shipping guidelines advise ships to use tracking systems to avoid collisions between vessels or locate them if they need to be rescued. Sometimes ships turn of their tracking systems to evade pirates, said Andrew Bardot, chief executive of IGP&I, an association of marine liability insurers. But “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 body set up to fight maritime crime and malpractice.

The U.S. government is analyzing ship movements in the Persian Gulf for any attempts to circumvent bans on funding Iran’s weapons programs or clearing payments for Iranian oil through the U.S. financial system, a U.S. official said. U.S. officials said they weren’t familiar with the particular shipments identified by the Journal. This scrutiny comes amid uncertainty in the U.S. about 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. President Donald Trump has cast doubt on whether his administration will continue to support his predecessor’s commitment to the deal. U.S. officials said the White House is reviewing its Iran policy and considering stiffer measures. Shortly after Mr. Trump took office, the administration imposed new sanctions related to Iran’s defense and ballistic-missile programs. While the nuclear agreement lifted many obstacles to doing business with Iran, the U.S. maintains sanctions that make it difficult to trade Iranian oil. A ban on clearing payments through the U.S. financial system hinders trade because oil is mostly bought and sold in dollars. The U.S. also prohibits doing business with blacklisted entities including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a military division that is dominant in Iran’s economy.