Illicit Iranian Oil Shipment Shut Down at Sea

An Iranian-flagged oil tanker
An Iranian-flagged oil tanker (Getty Images)
December 22, 2020

An international shipping company shut down an illicit transfer of Iranian crude oil, denying the regime much-needed revenue as it works to skirt international sanctions, according to information obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Iran is believed to have loaded a tanker with petroleum products from its Tombak Port before sending it to perform a ship-to-ship transfer with a Danish vessel operated by Celsius Shipping, which is partnered with the Singapore-based Maersk Tankers. United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a watchdog group that monitors Tehran's movements at sea, alerted Celsius and its partner mid-transfer that the other vessel, the Ocean Schooner, likely contained Iran's heavily sanctioned crude oil.

The incident highlights the critical role non-governmental watchdog groups play in policing Iran's illicit activity. While the United States and other countries maintain sanctions on the Iranian oil sector, these governments are not always capable of tracking Tehran's day-to-day movements. UANI has emerged as one of the leading advocacy groups helping to enforce international sanctions by naming and shaming companies still doing business with Tehran.

Iran uses a range of tricks to obfuscate the origins of its oil—a critical revenue source for the hardline regime. It routinely shuts off tracking devices monitored by international authorities, making it difficult for companies to determine the origins of a ship's crude payload, and flies false flags on its ships to deceive recipients.

UANI discovered the Ocean Schooner docked in Iran in early December. It immediately sent a letter to Celsius leaders that provided detailed information about the vessel's movements and links to Tehran. At the time, the Schooner was engaged in a ship-to-ship transfer at sea with the Celsius Everett, according to shipping information provided to the Free Beacon.

As in similar cases, the Schooner was found to have disabled its tracking devices, known as "going dark," when docked in Iran's port.

UANI warned Celsius that it could run afoul of American sanctions laws, and Celsius immediately stopped the transfer.

"The timeliness of your information was extremely helpful," Eva Birgitte Bisgaard, chief commercial officer at Maersk, wrote to UANI, according to a copy of that letter viewed by the Free Beacon. "Maersk Tankers and Celsius decided that the CELSIUS EVERETT would not accept the cargo from the OCEAN SCHOONER and terminated the ship-to-ship transfer between the two vessels. We have also decided to refrain from engaging in any transaction with the OCEAN SHOONER [sic] or its owner in the future."

UANI praised Celsius for its action and said that more companies are waking up to the dangers of doing business with Iran.

"With every responsible action taken by the international shipping community, such as the action taken by Maersk, it becomes harder for Iran to conduct these illicit operations," UANI chief of staff Claire Jungman told the Free Beacon.

Published under: Iran