Iraq Nixes Mixer Mothership
For two years, UANI has been painstakingly observing a single vessel known as “NAJAF.” Unlike standard movement tracking, however, NAJAF never moves from its spot just offshore of the key Iraqi port of Khor al-Zubair, in the far north of the Persian Gulf. NAJAF’s role is as a giant stationary ‘mixer,’ blending different oils in order to obscure Iranian origin, while other tankers collect the new illegal blend for onward export.
Last month, without naming NAJAF specifically, the Wall Street Journal summarized how large ‘motherships’ are critical cogs in the illicit export of Iranian oil, in one of the first major public reports:
"Persian Gulf waters off Iraq have become a new, important waypoint for Iranian oil smugglings looking to avoid U.S. sanctions… Iranian tankers now regularly transfer crude to other ships just miles offshore the major Iraqi port of Al Faq, according to officials. The oil is then mixed with cargoes from other places to disguise its origin and eventually ends up for sale on the world markets, they say."
However, it appears Iraqi authorities have finally decided that NAJAF was attracting too much unwanted attention. On November 25, the Iraqi State Organization for Marketing of Oil (SOMO) announced the end of its use of three crude oil tankers, including NAJAF, used as floating storage tanks to handle fuel oil and naphtha products in Iraqi waters. The other vessels are MAROON and ATHINA.
According to UANI research, the complex smuggling operation begins with the overland transport of oil from northern fields controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In trucks guarded by Hashd al Shaabi, an Iranian-controlled Iraqi Shiite militia, the Iranian crude is brought down through Iraq to its southern port at Khor al Zubair. From one of the piers, the oil is then loaded onto smaller tankers, which in turn transfer the crude to the NAJAF mothership via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Once various Iranian and Iraqi oils have been mixed, other tankers come and collect.
Since January 2019, UANI has managed to track NAJAF’s role in at least 46 (forty-six) STS transfers with vessels that have subsequently exported the oil around the world, including to Malaysia, South Korea and India. Some examples of NAJAF engaged in STS transfers are shown below.
Oil/Chemical tanker in a STS with NAJAF on October 29, 2020 (Source: Sentinel Hub)
Singapore flagged Crude Oil Tanker in a STS with NAJAF on September 9, 2020 (Source: Sentinel Hub)
With SOMO’s important decision, UANI awaits with interest to see whether other VLCC mixing motherships will replace NAJAF.