An oil tanker belonging to Iran’s state-owned shipping line has been switching flags and using multiple companies to transport crude from Syria to Iran, illustrating how Tehran is helping to sidestep international efforts to choke the finances of Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president.
Documents obtained by the Financial Times show the vessel, operated by the Islamic Republic International Shipping Lines, sailed from Syria to the Gulf of Oman and then Iran, using different flags and changing owners.
Syria is reeling from the effect of sanctions introduced by the US, the EU and some Arab states over the past year. Analysts estimate the economy has contracted by between 2 and 10 per cent, and the Syrian pound has declined in value by a third.
Oil sanctions imposed by the EU, which bought 95 per cent of Syria’s oil exports, have hit the country particularly hard. The sector accounted for 20 per cent of gross domestic product before the uprising began.
Iran and Syria have long been allies and Tehran, which faces a range of international sanctions over its nuclear programme, has been accused by the US of assisting the Syrian regime in its crackdown against 14-month uprising.
Evidence of co-operation between the two countries comes as industry experts note a marked increase in the use of so-called ‘flags of convenience’ fluttering on Iranian-owned oil tankers.
International maritime laws require vessels to be flagged, showing the country to which they are registered. For a small fee, however, vessels can register with another country, such as Bolivia, Liberia and the Marshall Islands where analysts say registration standards are less stringent.
“The Iranian tanker fleet is becoming increasingly hard to track,” said Hugh Griffiths, head of the countering illicit tracking unit at the Stockholm International Peace research institute. “As a result, Iranian-owned oil tankers are migrating to less regulated flags to continue doing business – whether it is shipping oil on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, or transporting Iranian crude,” Mr Griffiths added.
The recent voyage of the MT Tour, a tanker in part owned by IRISL – which is itself subject to international sanctions – offers a glimpse of how this works.
The Tour’s movements were tracked by the FT through a combination of shipping records, company registries and sources monitoring the vessel.
Over the weekend of March 23, the Tour arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus. At the time, the vessel was flying the flag of Malta.
Transport Malta, the manager of the country’s maritime registry, withdrew the Tour’s registration over concerns about its status on March 24.
“After the necessary verifications with the owners of the tanker Tour and other ships, it was decided that such ships’ registration certificates would be suspended immediately and they will be struck off the Maltese merchant shipping register within a month,” Malta’s shipping registry said in a statement.
On March 25, the Tour arrived in the Syrian port of Banias, where it picked up a shipment of Syrian light crude oil blend.
Two days later, the Tour switched to a Bolivian flag, according to the Bolivian maritime registry. It also changed its owner. Its had been registered to ISIM Tour, a Maltese company belonging to ISI Maritime, also registered in Malta. ISI Maritime is owned by Irano-Hind Shipping Company, a joint venture of IRISL and the Shipping Corporation of India.
By the 27th, the Tour’s registered owner had changed to Auris Marine Company – a company registered in the Marshall Islands, which is not subject to EU sanctions. Auris Marine was annulled just hours later, according to a person familiar with the situation. The Tour’s current ownership is unclear.
Shortly after, the Tour left Banias and headed south, passing through the Suez Canal. Between April 9 and 12, as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden, people familiar with its movements say the Tour switched off its tracking system.
Once it reached the Gulf of Oman on April 13, its tracking system was turned back on and it travelled up the Strait of Hormuz before dropping anchor near Larak Island, according to those persons. The island lies close to the middle of the Strait, close to the port city of Bandar Abbas.
Tracking data showed that on Thursday the Tour remained at anchor and appeared to be low in the water, suggesting it has not discharged the crude.
Bolivia’s maritime registry is now investigating a complaint that its ship registry has allowed Iranian-owned ships to fly under its flag after Avaaz, the campaigning organisation made a formal complaint.
“We took contact with some maritime authorities and other financial entities,” Admiral Zoilo Roca Kikikunaga, general director of the registry, told the FT.
Ricken Patel of Avaaz said: “Countries that provide flags of convenience, like landlocked Bolivia, need to stop renting out their names to those hiding from . . . regulation.”
Law firms that specialise in maritime jurisdictions said gaps in EU, US and UN regulations lend countries who do not sign up to international sanctions opportunities to do business.
“Iran is highly adept at moving quickly to avoid detection by government officials and private sector compliance teams but the lack of genuine multilateral measures make it much easier for Iran to sidestep sanctions,” said Chris Pickup, a lawyer at international law firm Freshfields.