Mysterious Iranian ‘Ghost Ships’ Reappear in Persian Gulf After Months of Darkness

Tehran’s disappearing tankers raise fresh questions about regime’s illicit oil shipments

An Iranian-flagged oil tanker
An Iranian-flagged oil tanker (Getty Images)
August 19, 2020

Several Iranian "ghost ships" engaged in illicit shipments of the country's heavily sanctioned oil have reappeared on radar systems after months of silence, raising fresh concerns about the regime's efforts to skirt international sanctions in a bid to fill its cash reserves.

At least 80 Iranian crude tankers have been sailing across the globe for the past year as "ghost ships," a practice of turning off a vessel's GPS system to hide its movements from international monitors. This practice is illegal due to the dangers of causing an accident in international waters.

At least 14 of these ships mysteriously reengaged their GPS transponders this month, providing a window into Iran's illegal shipment of oil to countries such as China, which has emerged as one of Tehran's biggest international supporters as the Trump administration tightens the economic noose on Iran's economy. United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a watchdog group that has been tracking Iran's ghost ships, told the Washington Free Beacon that the sudden reappearance of these ships in the Persian Gulf may be due to Iran's recent military exercises in the region. In order to avoid a lethal accident during training missions, Iranian leaders may have ordered the ships to reactivate their transponders.

In the years since the Trump administration enacted sanctions meant to bring Iran's lucrative oil trade down to zero, the regime has concocted several plots to evade U.S. and international authorities. Tehran's so-called ghost ships are among the regime's most dangerous gambits, given the possibility of causing a crash that could lead to a major ecological disaster. At least one of the vessels is currently on its way to China, according to UANI.

Senior U.S. officials familiar with Iran's activity told the Free Beacon that they will continue to sanction Iranian violations, including the illicit shipment of crude oil to China. The administration is set on preventing Iran from selling its oil and took the unprecedented step this month of intercepting a shipment bound for Venezuela, which has found common cause with Tehran as it faces down its own set of American sanctions.

"The regime has historically moved hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of illicit oil—money then used to fund terrorism," Brian Hook, the administration's top Iran envoy, told the Free Beacon. "The Trump administration has sanctioned any sanctionable activity, and we have taken down some of Iran's shipping networks. Iran cloaks the origin of its oil, falsifies documents, and hides the location of its vessels by turning off transponders, which violates maritime law and threatens safety."

Of the 80 Iranian ghost ships currently in operation, 14 have been spotted in August, according to data compiled by UANI and provided to the Free Beacon. At least 37 of these tankers have been running dark for more than a month and 18 of them have not been spotted at all since 2019.

Iran's National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), which the United States heavily sanctions, is responsible for operating the ships and is one of the hardline regime's primary sources of cash. The NITC has gone to great lengths to keep these ships operating under U.S. sanctions, particularly as the regime runs low on money.

One tanker, known as "Happiness," reappeared this month after having its transponder turned off since June 2020. Until that date, UANI officials had not spotted the ship since September 2019. It appeared this month in the Yellow Sea and changed its flag from Iran to Mongolia in a bid to further confuse international monitors. The ship then traveled to China with a full stock of crude oil.

"Iran is the only country whose ships switch off their trackers as a matter of national policy," Claire Jungman, UANI's chief of staff, told the Free Beacon. "Iran has a history of concealing the destination of its oil sales by disabling its AIS tracking systems. The only reason Iran would do this would be to violate sanctions and go undetected. This obviously makes it difficult to gauge how much crude Tehran is actually exporting, estimates between 'observed' and 'unobserved' vary wildly."

At least two other tankers that reappeared have restocked their oil reserves and are also making their way to China and South Korea, according to UANI, which suspects that the tankers stationed in the Persian Gulf may have reengaged their transponders to avoid a deadly accident during Iran's military exercises earlier this month.

"Given Iran's abysmal record of 'friendly fire' incidents, including its shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger jet earlier this year, Iranian authorities were loathe to repeat performance," UANI concluded in a written briefing on the tankers provided to the Free Beacon.

Published under: Iran , Sanctions