September 2020 Iran Tanker Tracking

Despite tightening U.S. sanctions, Iranian oil exports increased sharply in September. At the time of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) in May 2018, Iranian exports were over 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd), which soon shrunk to 70,000 bpd in April 2020, according to Kpler.

But now estimates Iran managed to get the figure up to around 1.2 million bpd for September. The boost can be largely attributed to stepped-up efforts by Iran to engage in literally under-the-radar operations, notably with hugely expanding use of illicit ship-to-ship transfers of oil onto non-Iranian vessels.

Indeed, UANI spotted Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) engaging in multiple ship-to-ship (STS) oil transfers in ongoing efforts to obscure origin and evade monitoring. More than one-third (possible up to one half) of Iran’s exports were conducted via STS off the coast of Iran in the middle of the Persian Gulf. Through satellite imagery, UANI found over 20 foreign vessels engaging in a STS with a NITC tanker or calling directly at an Iranian port during the month of September.

For example, on September 2 and September 14, a NITC Aframax tanker engaged in a STS with the Gabon-flagged ARK RESCUE. After contacting the Gabonese maritime authority, however, Gabon made the responsible and important decision to withdraw its flag. ARK RESCUE has since changed its flag to Tanzania while changing its name to ELISA SEA. UANI will monitor this vessel for any further illicit conduct.

(Source: Sentinel Hub)

In particular, the NITC tanker SOBAR was highly active this month, acting as Iran’s STS-mothership for oil exports. On September 4, SOBAR engaged in a STS with the St Kitts & Nevis flagged vessel LAVINIA. Later that week, SOBAR engaged in a STS with the Panama flagged vessel PROUD NADIA and again with PROUD NADIA on September 24. On September 11, SOBAR conducted a three-way STS with LAVINIA and the Comoros-flagged vessel CLARA. On September 14, SOBAR engaged in a STS with the Panama-flagged vessel DAISY 2. Finally, on September 20 SOBAR again engaged in a three-way STS with the Panama-flagged vessel BRIGHT SONIA and LAVINIA. 

(Source: Sentinel Hub)

As well as these clandestine STS transfers, Venezuela is also continuing to prove a significant and openly defiant destination for Iranian exports. Up to 2 million barrels of Iranian condensate arrived at the Venezuela state-owned PdV Jose Terminal on September 13 aboard the Iran-flagged crude oil tanker HORSE. In addition, three Iranian-flagged Handymax tankers, the FOREST, the FORTUNE, and the FAXON, each carrying 275,000 barrels, left Iran this month for South America.

This month should serve as a warning to the U.S. Administration: Iran is clearly capable of continuing to export in large quantities despite tightening sanctions enforcement. In addition to the well-publicized Caracas route, the White House must prioritize the curtailment of secretive (and illegal) ship-to-ship transfers, which some analysts believe are involved in half of all successful Iranian oil export deliveries -- if maximum economic pressure efforts are to succeed. Clearly, there are still a number of entities within the shipping world, including flag registries, maritime administrations, port authorities, marine insurers, as well as the shippers themselves, who are at this moment content to look away.