The Malta Independent 21 January 2019, Monday

Iran disguised Maltese registered ships with Tanzanian, Tuvalu flags

Malta Independent Sunday, 4 August 2013, 09:24 Last update: about 6 years ago

Before Malta deregistered all ships linked to the Iranian government and the National Iranian Tanker Company last year, Iran had been in the practice of disguising Maltese ships with the maritime flags and call signals of Tanzanian and Tuvalu, according to reports in the media this week.

Now, Tanzania has cried foul over Iran having engaged in the same kind of subterfuge – of using Tanzanian identification on its ships without authorisation.

Despite their having delisted 36 Iranian ships, officials in Tanzania said Tehran was still using its call sign to duck around international sanctions aimed at Iran’s oil industry, according to African press reports.

According to reports, at least three National Iranian Tanker Company-operated tanks have recently been transmitting using the ‘677’ prefix code, which identifies them as sailing under the Tanzanian flag.

Officials from the East African country’s Zanzibar Maritime Authority have requested that port authorities take stern measures against Iranian ships that use Tanzanian identification codes and reaffirmed that they removed the registration of dozens of Iranian tankers.

Authority director Abdi Maalim stressed that his country had cancelled the registration of 36 Iranian tankers in order not to fall foul of international sanctions aimed at throttling Iran’s oil exports due to its nuclear programme.

This is not the first time Iran has attempted to fly the Tanzanian flag against Zanzibar’s wishes. In August 2012, officials said, a Dubai-based shipping firm was secretly flagging ships from Malta and Cyprus with Tanzanian and Tuvalu flags. At the time, Zanzibar was in the process of delisting the ships.

In April 2012, the Tuvalu government agreed to cancel the registration of any Iranian-linked vessel following pressure from the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In September 2012, Sierra Leone unregistered 10 ships that it suspected were Iranian. In addition, Cyprus and Malta no longer register Iranian-linked vessels, after which some 75 sanctioned Iranian ships were transferred from Maltese shipping registry to those of Tanzania and Tuvalu, among other jurisdictions.

The ships, the West insists were linked to the Iranian government and its nuclear development programme, and have recently been moved to the maritime flags of Tuvalu, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Bolivia and Moldova as sanctions against the rogue state increased.

Twenty-four had been re-registered in Tuvalu and 12 more have been reflagged by Tanzania and the rest have been re-flagged elsewhere, including to the land-locked country of Bolivia.

A statement issued by the NITC at the time confirmed that the mass exodus from the Maltese shipping registry was clearly aimed at circumventing United Nations and European Union sanctions that Malta is bound to uphold – at a significant cost to the coffers of the country’s shipping registry, which collects handsome fees from ships flying the Maltese flag.

On 1 July of last year, the European Union implemented a ban on the import of Iranian oil. Weeks earlier, NITC had begun pre-emptively re-flagging its ships away from Malta and Cyprus, where they had previously sought refuge in a web of shell companies that has since been unravelled.

According to the NITC at the time, “The change of flags of the fleet was a transparent and pre-emptive action to avoid breaching the new sanction law which was intended to be implemented in the concerned flag state [i.e. Malta].” 

But despite the ship transfers, the NITC insisted there was nothing illegal about its operations and that it is not an entity of the Iranian government, a point hotly disputed by Brussels and Washington DC.

NITC, formerly an Iranian state enterprise, which has described itself as privatised since 2000, initially reflagged its oil tankers from Iran to Malta and Cyprus around 2008. That was the time the US blacklisted Iran’s state-owned merchant fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), but spared NITC.

In response to those sanctions, IRISL embarked on a global game of cat and mouse in which scores of IRISL-linked ships blacklisted by the US and later by the EU, have been reflagged and renamed in Malta and elsewhere, and in some cases multiple times, with ownership transferred to opaque shell companies.

The NITC had added in its statement, “We hereby strongly refute any allegation of being a governmental entity or a property of the government of Iran and reiterate that the vessels within the fleet have always been operated legally and in accordance to the applicable national international laws and regulations.”

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