Trying to elude the reach of U.S. sanctions, Iran’s oil tankers have put on quite a circus this year, renaming, reflagging and at times switching off their onboard vessel tracking systems to drop off the maritime grid. Now comes a further drama, fraught with mystery, in which ship-tracking databases show a growing number of Iranian oil tankers flagged to Tanzania, while Tanzanian authorities say they have no such Iranian ships registered.The article gets better, as the reporter tries to track down apparent Tanzanian lies that Iran is illegally sailing using Tanzanian call signs.
The ships at the core of this conundrum belong to Iran’s main tanker company, NITC, formerly known as the National Iranian Tanker Company. This past July, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted NITC, along with 58 of its vessels, as belonging to the government of Iran. Among the blacklisted NITC vessels were more than 30 tankers which had only recently distanced themselves from looming European sanctions by reflagging from Malta and Cyprus to Tanzania and the Pacific archipelago nation of Tuvalu.
Under U.S. pressure, government authorities of both Tuvalu and Tanzania said in August that they would de-register ships blacklisted by the U.S. as owned or controlled by Iran. By mid-September, Tuvalu had done exactly that, not only de-registering more than 20 NITC tankers which had been sailing under its flag, but also de-flagging a nest of Iranian cargo ships, blacklisted by the U.S. as part of Iran’s large state merchant fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL).
But what’s going on with Tanzania? Rather than de-registering the 11 NITC tankers that were already sailing under its flag, Tanzania appears to have let them stay, and added more, according to ship-tracking data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence.
Worse yet, Tanzania’s shipping registry appears to have picked up at least eight of the NITC tankers evicted last month by Tuvalu.
All told, among the ships listed by Lloyd’s as currently flagged to Tanzania are at least 44 now blackballed by the U.S. as owned or controlled either by IRISL or NITC. That would account for well over one-fifth of all Iranian ships currently on the U.S. Treasury’s blacklist of Specially Designated Nationals, widely known as the SDN list. If the shipping data is accurate, it would mean that Tanzania’s shipping register is now the world’s second-largest host, after Iran itself, to major vessels of Iran’s commercial fleet.
The episode would be almost funny if it didn't prove that sanctions can only go so far, and all it takes is a tiny country or two for Iran to be able to create a huge gap in the sanctions.