Ships Exporting Iranian Oil Go Dark, Raising Sanctions Red Flags

By Sarah McFarlane and Benoit Faucon Features Dow Jones Newswires

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.

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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.

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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.

A shipowner, the ship's master -- the person responsible for the navigation of the vessel -- or the trader who chartered the vessel could give an instruction to shut off the automatic identification system, or AIS. U.S. investigators would likely look into the trader's responsibility in such situations in addition to the shipper, said Richard Nephew, who served as deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department from 2013 to 2015 and is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

"In most cases we assume it's not plausible that a trader would be ignorant of any attempts to avoid international monitoring of ship movements especially if it occurs on multiple shipping companies with the same trading company," he said.

Oil traders typically monitor the movements of their cargoes and would be in a position to know if the AIS isn't transmitting location, shipping and sanctions experts said.

Of Silk Road Petroleum's 46 shipments in the period, 40 emitted no tracking signals. The company didn't respond to requests to comment emailed to an address in the directory of the U.A.E.'s Hamriyah Free Zone Authority, where the company is registered. The email address was recently removed from the directory.

In the nine Petrochemix shipments in the second half of 2016, seven ships emitted no AIS radio signals at some point. A Petrochemix co-owner, when asked about the shipments, said the firm had no relations or business with Iranian companies, and that any AIS shut-off was a matter for vessel owners. Petrochemix chartered tankers owned by seven different shippers in the period.

The 47 shipments during which AIS was off were handled by 15 vessels. Many of the shipowners couldn't be reached, and one declined to comment. One shipper said many charterers tell ships to shut off the AIS because "most major banks don't want to deal with" such trade.

"The single biggest issue preventing wider trade between Iran and the rest of the world is the continuing reluctance of international banks to process payments to and from Iran," said Sue Millar, partner at law firm Stephenson Harwood LLP.

Blue Ocean Shipping Lines, an owner of one of the vessels chartered by both companies for a total of nine shipments, said its ship's AIS was broken at the time. Another shipper said the AIS was never intentionally switched off, nor was any "AIS deficiency" reported.

Apart from tracking cargo, the AIS system is used to provide location information to insurance companies, banks and others. But it can be manipulated to indicate a ship is somewhere it isn't, by manually entering incorrect coordinates or ports. Radio signals issued by as many as 16 of the 47 ships indicated their Iranian cargo began the journey in a different country, though satellite imagery showed them to have been loaded in Iran, according to Windward. That suggests the signals may have been used to transmit false location information, Windward said.

"A misdeclaration of the ports of loading or discharge would be one of the indications that the voyage breached sanctions," Mr. Mukundan said. "In any case, such a misdeclaration would be improper and misleading."

Hiding a cargo's Iranian origin would allow an exporter to be paid more easily in dollars or conceal the involvement of blacklisted entities, according to London law firm W Legal Ltd, which specializes in sanctions law. "The U.S. administration is watching Iran-related business like a hawk," said Nigel Kushner, W Legal's chief executive.

A U.S. Treasury official declined to comment on the shipments identified by the Journal. "We take allegations of sanctionable conduct seriously but we do not comment on applicability of sanctions in individual circumstances," the official said.

This year, the U.S. government said a Taiwanese shipping company had violated Iran sanctions, and in its finding said the company left ship logs blank and switched off the vessel's AIS to conceal a ship-to-ship transfer of Iranian crude.

Write to Sarah McFarlane at sarah.mcfarlane@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 06, 2017 20:01 ET (00:01 GMT)