At least one company within the significant web of shell companies set up in Malta by the Iranian government to hide its illicit shipping activities and circumvent international sanctions, as well as a Malta-flagged ship it owns, is helping the Syrian regime defy Western sanctions by shipping Syrian oil worth US$80 million to a state-run company in China.
In a special report, the Reuters news agency quotes a source in the shipping industry, who said he had been approached by Syrian state oil company Sytrol, as stating that Syria planned to sell oil directly to the Chinese but had trouble finding a vessel. The Iranians, however, had stepped in to lend a helping hand through one of its Malta-based companies, which sent one of its ships to collect and deliver the cargo.
The Chinese buyer was named as the Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, a Chinese state-run company sanctioned by the US government back in January. A spokesperson for the company, however, denied knowledge of the shipment.
The US State Department said in January that Zhuhai Zhenrong was the largest supplier of refined petroleum products to Iran, on which the West has imposed sanctions over suspicions that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran is one of Syria’s closest allies and has pledged to support the Assad regime and even went so far recently as to have praised Syria’s handling of the year-long uprising in which at least 9,000 people have been killed so far. China has also protected the Syrian regime from the imposition of sanctions, having controversially vetoed two resolutions at the United Nations against the bloodshed. China is not bound by Western sanctions against Syria, its oil sector or its state oil firm Sytrol.
But the European Union had sanctioned Sytrol in September of last year and the fact that a Maltese-registered company and ship is carrying out the shipment is very dubious indeed.
The Maltese-flagged tanker, MT Tour, is owned by shipping firm ISIM Tour Limited, which is also registered in Malta and has been identified by the US Department of Treasury as a front company set up by Iran to evade sanctions.
The ship is reported to have reached the Syrian port of Tartus last weekend where it took on 120,000 tonnes of light crude oil, according to the industry source and ship tracking data. Like the Chinese, Reuters reports that Syrian and Iranian authorities did not comment on the shipment.
The vessel was last spotted near Port Said in Egypt, where it was due arrive on Wednesday and, while its final destination was not available, the industry source speaking to Reuters said the vessel was likely to head to China or Singapore.
The Malta-based company, ISIM Tour Limited, along with several others, is registered at an address of a Maltese company that specialises in company and ship registrations.
On 16 March that company sent letters to the MFSA requesting it to remove it as the registered address of the companies since it had “immediately taken action” and ceased to offer any services to the companies as soon as it learnt of the EU and US sanctions against them.
In February it was reported that nearly two-thirds of visits to European Union ports by sanctioned ships linked to the Iranian state shipping line, Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), have taken place in Malta.
There is, however, nothing illegal about that because, thanks to a special clause that had been negotiated by Malta during EU internal negotiations, contracts between the sanctioned Iranian state shipping line and the Malta Freeport will remain valid until November 2013, although Malta is reportedly prepared to review that on condition that other countries follow suit.
But in the meantime, IRISL (sanctioned by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States) has been doing a bustling trade through the Malta Freeport transhipment hub. According to another Reuters investigation published in February, 64 per cent of stops at EU ports of call by IRISL cargo vessels have been to Malta.
Foreign Minister Tonio Borg at the time went on record saying that Malta was “moving in the direction” of de-flagging all IRISL vessels but said that other EU states would have to do likewise.
Dr Borg insisted that the size of IRISL’s Maltese fleet was nothing untoward and was directly proportionate to the size of the country’s shipping registry, the EU’s largest.
He was also quoted at the time as saying that Malta was ready to de-register the entire Iranian fleet flying under the Maltese flag, perhaps even before the expiry of an EU clause honouring IRISL contracts until November 2013, after a possible review along such lines.
“We’re moving in that direction,” he was quoted as saying, adding the reservation that Iran should not simply be allowed to relocate its ships to other European countries. “We believe that all services to IRISL should be prohibited,” Dr Borg said. “We are ready to make that sacrifice, provided that all countries also make the sacrifice. Otherwise it would be masochistic.”