Iran's fleet of "ghost ships" has ferried at least $22 billion worth of illicit oil to China since 2021, providing the hardline regime with a major source of revenue and raising questions about the Biden administration's lax enforcement of sanctions.
In the first three months of 2022 alone, Iran shipped an average of 829,260 barrels of oil per day to China, according to new figures published by United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI), an advocacy group that closely tracks Tehran's fleet of illegal tankers. A total of 337,882,520 illegal barrels—worth approximately $22 billion—have made their way to Beijing since President Joe Biden took office.
Iran's fleet, comprised of 182 foreign-owned and -flagged ships, operates with little interference from the United States, according to UANI. It is known as Tehran's "ghost armada" because these ships often obfuscate their position at sea and turn off their trackers—a violation of maritime law—so that they can evade detection.
Iran's black market oil trade has thrived under the Biden administration, fueling accusations the United States is turning a blind eye to sanctions enforcement in order to generate goodwill with Tehran as part of a diplomatic effort to ink a revamped nuclear deal.
UANI is outing the companies that own these ships as part of an effort to push the Biden administration into taking action. Four of the most active ships in Iran's fleet—VIGOR, VIRGO, HORNET, and BERG 1—are known to be operated by Atlantic Navigation, an India-based company that is linked to entities the United States has sanctioned for supporting Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the country's paramilitary fighting force, which is responsible for killing hundreds of Americans.
"During the time the four vessels mentioned were being operated by Atlantic Navigation, they carried just over 19 million barrels of Iranian oil, worth approximately $1 billion, to China," UANI chief of staff Claire Jungman told the Washington Free Beacon. "This money allows the Iranian regime to profit and in turn fund its terrorist activities around the world. There are clear ties between these vessels and sanctioned entities, and there is no good reason for the Biden administration to have turned a blind eye to this. This lack of action by the Biden administration is only enabling Iran's bad behavior."
The latest information about these ships and their owners reveals a tangled corporate web of shell companies that makes it difficult for U.S. authorities to determine who is responsible and how sanctions should apply.
"In our ongoing efforts to assist authorities, UANI has conducted investigations into the real owners of the Ghost Armada vessels," the group said in a recently published investigation. "Using official public records and other open-source data, our research to date has uncovered a web of front companies and facilitators that ultimately point back to Iran."
The four vessels responsible for delivering oil to China and operated by Atlantic Navigation are tied to sanctioned entities through a complicated web of foreign companies.
Atlantic Navigation's director is Vijaykumar Mishra, who also serves in this role at two other shipping companies that have been sanctioned by the United States, Vaniya Ship Management and 12 Degree Ship Management. Both were hit with sanctions in September 2019 for operating on behalf of another Iran-linked entity called the Mehdi Group.
The Mehdi Group is run by Ali Zaheer Mehdi, whom the United States designated for providing material support to the IRGC, according to UANI's investigation.
"Although Atlantic Navigation is only listed as the current technical manager for one of the four vessels mentioned above, it is very relevant to our investigation of this sanctions evasion scheme," UANI explained. "We have found that all of the new companies managing these vessels may still be tied to sanctioned entities, which is not surprising as we often see collaboration between entities on sanctions evasion and other illicit shipping schemes."
The watchdog group says it will disclose additional material about this sanctions-evasion scheme in the coming weeks.
A State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon the department is aware of China's importation of illicit Iranian oil and that sanctions "remain in effect unless and until they are lifted, and we will address any effort at sanctions evasion."
"We have used our sanctions authorities to respond to Iranian sanctions evasion efforts, including those involving China, and will continue to do so as necessary," the spokesman said, adding that U.S. officials are also addressing the issue directly with China.
"We have been approaching this diplomatically with the Chinese as part of our dialogue on Iran policy and part of our diplomatic effort to achieve a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA," the State Department spokesman said, referring to the 2015 nuclear accord by its acronym. "We think that in general this is a more effective path forward to address our concerns."