truth oceanic tanker nitc

MV Oceanic, image via Fleetmon

LONDON–Some Iranian tankers have been detected with a Tanzanian identification even though the East African nation has denied flagging them, as Tehran becomes more adept at playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the West to continue shipping its crude despite trade sanctions.

The news comes as the West is seeking to close loopholes in ship registration rules which Iran is using to bypass sanctions. The European Union Monday is set to formally endorse an EU ban on flagging Tehran’s tankers and the U.S. is considering even harsher measures against those helping Iran.

Iran badly needs oil revenue after sanctions halved its oil sales and caused its currency to dive–recently prompting the first major riots in Tehran in two years.

As the country responds to the challenge, it increasingly relies on tankers owned by its largest oil-vessel operator, National Iranian Tanker Co., to ship its crude to foreign buyers. The vast majority of shippers are unable to insure Iranian oil cargoes because of sanctions imposed by the EU in response to the Islamic Republic’s contested nuclear program.

In recent days, at least three ships owned by the NITC have started emitting a wireless number starting with “677”–the country code signaling a Tanzanian flag, according to shipping databases Marine Traffic and Fleetmon. The code can be used, for example, to give a distress signal. The vessels are also using a call sign–a unique identifier given by flag registration authorities–with a prefix that corresponds to the African country.

However, Jocelyn Acosta, who manages the Tanzanian shipping registry tasked with flagging foreign ships, said the ships “never registered with us.”

“Maybe this [the Tanzanian radio identification] is by mistake,” she said, adding that, in some cases, “people are using” identification corresponding to Tanzania “without us knowing it.”

NITC officials said they weren’t aware of the specifics of any of the ships, or whether they had changed flags or identification numbers.

The three tankers were previously registered with Tuvalu flags under different names. They were among 29 Iran-connected vessels formally barred from the Tuvalu Ship Registry last month after the island nation came under U.S. pressure.

The vessels’ switch from a Tuvalu flag to a Tanzanian identification comes after the African country pledged to stop flagging Iranian tankers in response to a U.S. warning it could stop economic assistance.

There is no doubt, however, the vessels are helping Iranian oil to reach some of the country’s key export destinations. Monday, NITC’s “Oceanic,” formerly known as the “Truth” vessel when it was Tuvalu-flagged, was sailing to the Chinese port of Ningbo. Another was sailing from Iran’s oil terminal on Kharg island to China and a third was near Turkey, according to Marine Traffic.

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

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