* Malta says moving in direction of deflagging IRISL
* Iran facing growing sanctions pressure
* See SPECIAL REPORT-Iran's cat-and-mouse game on sanctions:
LONDON/VALETTA, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Tightening sanctions
aimed at pressuring Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme
threaten to drive Iran's flagship cargo shipping line out of
Europe, something past efforts have failed to accomplish, a
Reuters investigation shows.
Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which
carries an estimated one third of the country's dry bulk and
container seaborne trade, has faced European Union sanctions for
its alleged role in smuggling banned weapons, including measures
implemented on July 26, 2010.
Yet since then, 23 ships have visited 12 ports in the EU a
total of 149 times, according to analysis including vessel
movements and port calls for a Reuters special report into
Iranian shipping sanctions published on Wednesday. [PDF: http://link.reuters.com/daf66s
These include 96 visits to Malta, 14 to Antwerp, and 10 to
Rotterdam. Two EU countries also still provide what critics call
"flags of convenience" to the majority of the firm's fleet.
Malta flags 48 vessels and Cyprus 12, out of a total of 144
vessels identified by the United States and the EU as IRISL
In interviews with Reuters, officials from both Malta and
Cyprus indicated they will soon begin to de-register all of
Iran's sanctioned fleet and review all contracts for shipping
services, effectively ousting them from Europe.
Under the EU sanctions, all IRISL assets were ordered frozen
and all commercial transactions banned, but an exemption does
allow some existing contracts to be honoured.
Malta's foreign minister Tonio Borg confirmed in an
interview that his country was "moving in the direction" of
deflagging all vessels. But he insisted other countries should
"We believe that all services to IRISL should be
prohibited," Borg told Reuters. "We are ready to make that
sacrifice, provided that all countries also make the sacrifice."
In Cyprus, officials suggested they would follow suit in
de-registering the fleet. A Cypriot official, speaking on
condition of anonymity, said the Department of Merchant Shipping
had already allowed international safety certificates to expire
on January 15, making it hard for any Cypriot-registered ships
to continue operations.
The Reuters investigation found that IRISL still continues
to play a complex cat-and-mouse game by frequently shifting the
official registered owners, flags, and even the names of vessels
in an attempt to conceal their connection to the firm.
John Dalby, a former oil tanker captain and chief executive
of Marine Risk Management, a global consultancy and maritime
security company, said the number of changes "says volumes about
the smoke and mirrors going on at IRISL".
"They are trying to mask ownership and mask tracking of the
specific whereabouts of various ships. By aiming to turn a
vessel into a ghost ship, they hope to conceal its ultimate
ownership and, secondarily, its movements," Dalby said.
In the 48 months before U.S. sanctions began in September
2008, IRISL made at least 345 changes in its fleet, including
ship names, the flags they operated under, operators, managers
and registered owners.
In the 40 months since those sanctions, there have been at
least 878 changes.
(Jonathan Saul reported from London and Stephen Grey from
Valletta; additional reporting by Phillip Baillie in London,
Himanshu Ojha in New York, and Michele Kambas in Nicosia;
editing by Jason Neely)