WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials say they have uncovered an effort by Iran to help its close ally, Syria, evade U.S. sanctions on its petroleum sector.
The story, first reported by "The Wall Street Journal," was confirmed to RFE/RL by a U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson, who said that officials had identified an Iran-chartered tanker attempting to bring Syrian oil to Tehran for resale, with the proceeds apparently to be funneled back to Damascus.
"The Wall Street Journal," citing unnamed "officials and executives," reported on January 19 that the tanker took on 91,000 metric tons of crude last November 19, 20, and 21 at the Syrian port of Baniyas, and intended to unload it at Iran's Ras Bahregan oil terminal.
The tanker, named "The Mire," was insured by the U.S. branch of the Mutual Protection and Indemnity Club (P&I) and registered by the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry (LISCR), whose headquarters are in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
U.S. officials notified the companies that in picking up Syrian oil, the ship had violated U.S. sanctions that prohibit doing business with Syria's petroleum sector.
P&I subsequently rescinded the ship's insurance coverage, and LISCR revoked its registry, effectively preventing its travel in international waters.
Scott Bergeron, the CEO of Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, told RFE/RL that the company's oversight responsibilities do not include a duty to monitor the commercial activities of vessels they register.
He said his company has issued advisories to its fleet informing them of applicable sanctions.
The Treasury Department spokesperson, who spoke on background, noted that most maritime insurance companies are based in the United States or European Union, meaning that ships intent on carrying Syrian oil will have to look elsewhere for coverage or risk being caught amid U.S. scrutiny.
The spokesperson said the incident is in keeping with Iran's history of defying Western sanctions regimes and shows the strength of Tehran's relationship with Damascus, as well as the impact sanctions against are having against Syria, which he said is "trying anything it can do to offload its oil."
The U.S. ban on companies doing business with Syria's petroleum sector was imposed in August 2011 as part of a package of sanctions aimed at pressuring President Bashar al-Assad to stop his government's deadly violence against antigovernment protesters and step down.
The EU instituted a similar ban.
Washington and Brussels have also accused Tehran of providing weapons and technology to Damascus to fuel the crackdown.
There was no immediate response to the U.S. investigation by Iran or Syria.
Earlier this month, Cyprus held up a Russian-operated ship carrying what local officials said were munitions bound for Syria, in defiance of Western sanctions.
The ship was released after Cyprus said it received assurances that the ship would not complete the delivery.
However, it later docked at the Syrian port of Tartus.