IRISL containers.

LONDON–Iranian ships have started sailing under the Moldovan flag as others lose their Tuvalu flags, databases and campaigners say, as Iran to play an increasingly complex game of cat and mouse to access to global markets amid U.S. pressure over its nuclear program.

The moves underscore how mounting pressure on Iran’s shipping fleet is making its trade increasingly difficult, as it increasingly relies on domestic tankers to export its oil while also struggling to find ships to import cereals and other basic goods.

Iran has started moving its shipping registration for some of its ships to the landlocked eastern European nation. According to shipping databases Equasis and Clarksons, the Begonia, which is managed by Tehran-based Soroush Sarzamin Ship Management Co., received a Moldovan flag in June. The Begonia has changed names and flags three times in four years, according to Equasis. Soroush Sarzamin, which couldn’t be reached, is designated by the U.S. as a front for Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, a state-owner shipper accused of involvement with Iran’s military program.

New York-based campaigning group United Against Nuclear Iran–which first uncovered the Moldovan connection–said Thursday Moldova had reflagged as many as 11 vessels owned, managed or operated by IRISL. It said it had written to Moldova’s President Nicolae Timofti, warning him the registration on IRISL ships “could seriously affect U.S.- Moldova trade relations.” A Moldovan government spokeswoman couldn’t immediately comment.

The U.S. treasury warned in July that maritime authorities “should be aware that assisting IRISL or its blocked affiliates to re-flag their vessels…may be considered a basis for designation” as part of Iranian sanctions.

But IRISL isn’t the only Iranian shipper forced to swap flags because of US pressure.

The Pacific island of Tuvalu said Friday it had completed the de-registration process of tankers owned by Iran’s largest tanker operator NITC and any possible Iranian-linked vessels.

In the spring, NITC had already moved its vessel’s registration from Malta and Cyprus to Tuvalu and Tanzania ahead a European Union ban on Iranian oil transportation that kicked in July 1.

NITC, a privatized Iranian company, said it transferred its ships’ flag outside Europe to avoid breaching sanctions. But the U.S. accused the tanker operator of changing the registration to dodge sanctions.

After Washington placed restrictions on NITC and its ships in July, Tanzania and Tuvalu said they would strike its vessels from their registries.

It is unclear where the ships-which would be unable to sail without sail without a flag-will now be registered. An NITC official said “there is no problem” with its ships’ flag but declined to comment further.

In recent months, the west has been ratcheting up pressure on Iran’s nuclear program, alleging it has military aims, a charge that Iran denies.

 -By Benoit Faucon. (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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