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UN Sanctions Take Aim At Iran's Shipping Industry


The logo of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines mark containers being lifted from a ship in the Israeli port of Ashdod in November 2009.
As the UN Security Council prepared to debate new sanctions on Iran, it became clear that Iran's shipping industry would be one of the main targets.

A draft of the sanctions proposal leaked to the media contained tough language appealing to all states to help keep track of the activities of Iran's state-owned fleet of vessels.

Specifically, the leaked text requested "all member states to communicate to the [Sanctions] Committee any information available on transfers or activity by...vessels owned or operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL)...that may have been undertaken in order to evade the sanctions."

The call for help is a measure of the cat-and-mouse game that has developed between Iran's state-owned shipping company and states trying to ensure that Iran does not acquire materials that could advance its nuclear and missile programs.

"The New York Times" reported on June 8 that Iran's state-owned ships have changed their names, the flags under which they operate, their registered owners, or their registered operators at a staggering rate since 2008, when Washington unilaterally slapped financial sanctions on the IRISL and 18 of its affiliates.

New Names Or Guises

When Washington "blacklisted" Iran Shipping Lines, it drew up a list of 123 ships to watch. But today, the newspaper reports, only 46 of the ships on that watch list are still clearly owned by the IRISL or its known subsidiaries. All the rest -- except for four that have gone out of service -- today operate under new names or guises that make enforcing the blacklist much harder.

According to data from the London-based ship-tracking service IHS Fairplay, the 123 ships on the watch list have altogether undergone 405 changes since 1990. Of these, 140 changes were to ship's names and 91 were changes of the registered owner.

Valerie Lincy of Wisconsin Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that publishes, says many vessels have been given English-sounding names to make them less conspicuous. Vessels have often been renamed to drop the word 'Iran,' which might have been part of their original designation," Lincy says. "For example, the 'Iran Madani' became the 'Adventist,' the 'Iran Ghazi' became the 'Ajax,' and the 'Iran Gilan' became the 'Bluebell.'"

The frenzy of activity means that most of IRISL's former ships now nominally belong to companies registered in places as far-flung as Malta, Hong Kong, Cyprus, Germany, and the Isle of Man.

Matt Godsey, a research associate at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, says the intent is to make it more difficult for port authorities and others in the shipping business to know that a vessel is on the blacklist.

"Some of the names of some of the front companies have become very British sounding. They sound like little villages in the Cotswolds, like 'Oxsted' shipping," Godsey says. "It is almost as if someone in the company took a map of central England and chose little villages to give as names for the front companies. The pattern there is to not raise suspicion about the origins of the vessels."

For port authorities to see beyond the mask requires that they check the unique ship identification number that all major cargo ships are required to carry. But Godsey says checking a ship's International Maritime Organization (IMO) number, which would tie the ship back to the blacklist, is not always easy.

"The problem is that not everyone in the shipping industry always checks that number [and that's why] the name is so important," Godsey says. "I was talking to a shipping company recently that pointed out that everyone in the shipping industry, whether dealing with freight forwarding or insurance, always know the name of the vessel and checks the name. But the IMO number is not always there; it is not always provided."

With their new names and apparently innocuous owners, the ships can load military-use cargo in foreign ports without automatically raising authorities' suspicions. And because the cargo itself is ordered by other shell companies, the ultimate destination -- Iran -- is also hidden.

'Deceptive Schemes'

U.S. officials spoke of the extent of this duplicity when they first blacklisted IRISL in 2008. Stuart Levy, the U.S. Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said "IRISL not only facilitates the transport of cargo for UN designated proliferators, it also falsifies documents and uses deceptive schemes to shroud its involvement in illicit commerce."

Now, as the Iranian shipping company has raced ahead of the blacklist in a blur of changes, Washington hopes the new UN sanctions will enable it to better keep its watch list updated.

That watch list, in turn, could be used to target the companies for asset freezes if the Security Council includes such provisions in its final version of the sanctions proposal. Western powers on the Security Council are hoping for just such a tough final version, but Russia and China have previously backed only milder measures.

The new round of sanctions on Iran is the fourth since 2006.

The earlier rounds have, among other things, called on states to block Iran's import and export of "sensitive nuclear material and equipment" and called upon countries to inspect cargo planes and ships entering or leaving Iran if there were "reasonable grounds" to believe they were carrying prohibited goods.

The international community is worried Iran is using its civilian nuclear program to mask efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies that charge.