The 14 ships, previously registered in the Pacific island of Tuvalu, transmitted data from Sept. 24 to Oct. 13 to show they changed their names and were flying the Tanzania-Zanzibar flag, according to data compiled by a unit of Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Inc. The company maintains a global shipping database for the United Nations’ maritime agency.
“This must be a mistake,” Abdullah Kombo, the director of planning, policy and research at Zanzibar’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Communications, said by phone Oct. 15. The following day he forwarded confirmation from his country’s ship registry that the vessels aren’t entitled to fly the flag.
Iranian tankers have been switching flag states as the U.S. and European Union tighten sanctions on the country over its nuclear program. The EU banned imports of the Middle East nation’s oil in July under legislation that also prohibited any vessel insured in the 27-country bloc from carrying the fuel. Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, said Aug. 10 it would stop registering Iranian vessels and Tuvalu announced the same decision six days later.
The tankers are operated by Tehran-based NITC, which says it is owned by Iranian pension funds. Three phone calls and an e-mail on Oct. 16 and 17 to Habib-ullah Seyedan, NITC’s commercial director, weren’t returned. NITC Chairman Hamid Behbahani didn’t respond to phone calls or an e-mail yesterday. Three calls to NITC’s switchboard weren’t answered.
Nine of the tankers are going to Asia, according to the signals. One is in the Mediterranean heading for Turkey and the others are returning to the Persian Gulf. Nine of the vessels have a depth in the water that indicates they may have cargoes on board. Eleven are very large crude carriers, each able to haul about two million barrels of oil.
Merchant ships transmit data such as location, destination, name and flag state through so-called automatic identification systems, designed to avoid collisions with other vessels and improve safety at sea. IHS maintains the database with information from ship registries, signals from carriers, classification societies and other sources, said Richard Hurley, a senior maritime data specialist at the Redhill, England-based IHS Fairplay unit.
The concentration of the maritime insurance industry in Europe means the EU sanctions extend to about 95 percent of the global tanker fleet. That means Iran, once OPEC’s second-largest producer, is more reliant than ever on its own vessels to export crude. Shipments probably averaged 1.2 million barrels a day so far this month, compared with about 2.4 million in 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg through Oct. 15.
NITC switched at least 10 tankers to Tanzania-Zanzibar from registries in Cyprus and Malta before the EU sanctions began July 1, IHS data show. Those ships are no longer registered and no new Iranian tankers have been added since then, Kombo said.
The 14 Iranian carriers now signaling Tanzania-Zanzibar as their flag state are listed in the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. That freezes assets and prohibits U.S. citizens from dealing with them. The vessels appear under their International Maritime Organization number, a six-digit identifier assigned to ships for life by the UN agency.
Carriers aren’t obliged to signal their flag state through the AIS system under IMO regulations, Lee Adamson, a spokesman for the London-based agency wrote in an e-mail Oct. 17. Mistakes are usually the result of operator error, particularly with newly-installed AIS equipment, Adamson said.
While the U.S. and EU say Iran’s nuclear research is a cover for developing atomic weapons, the government in Tehran contends it is for civilian purposes.