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article imageIran using 'ghost ships' to get around Trump's oil sanctions

By Karen Graham     Oct 20, 2018 in World
If the Trump administration plans on driving Iran's oil exports down to zero, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, they are going to have to do some hustling. It seems Iran has resorted to using "ghost ships" to meet importers demands for their oil.
The two biggest buyers of Iranian oil are China and India, accounting for 50 percent of all Iranian oil exports. However, despite the growing trade tensions and looming sanctions against Iran, China has promised to keep Iranian oil flowing, regardless of the Trump sanctions.
China is actually working alongside Russia and the European Union on newly created special purpose vehicle (SPV) to bypass the sanctions. India is not so concerned about the trade sanctions and has also promised to keep Iranian oil flowing, citing the importance of oil to its economy.
President Trump exited the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), better known as the Iran nuclear agreement, and in August, as the rhetoric between the White House and Iran started escalating, Trump began imposing sanctions on the state. The first round of sanctions hit Iranian financial interests in the U.S.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was "deeply disappointed" by the EU's plan ...
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was "deeply disappointed" by the EU's plan to circumvent American sanctions to keep doing business with Iran
Now, the second round of sanctions due to be implemented in November will hit Iran's oil exports and the country's banking interests. And as Mike Pompeo has increasing said, the administration wants to get Iran's oil exports down to zero. Asked about China and India's assertion they would continue to receive oil from Iran, the President said the U.S. would take care of the countries that defy its sanctions.
Where there is a will, there's a way
If you listen to the White House and some media versions of the story, Iranian oil exports have plunged about 35 percent since April, and are expected to drop to near zero after November 4, the formal day when the sanctions go into effect.
A file photo taken on May 16  2004 shows an aerial view of Iran's Balal offshore oil platform a...
A file photo taken on May 16, 2004 shows an aerial view of Iran's Balal offshore oil platform after the inauguration of the offshore oil field developed by French major Total together with BowValley of Canada and Italy's Agip
Behrouz MEHRI, AFP/File
And oil is an important driver of the Iranian economy, accounting for nearly 80 percent of Iran's tax revenue, according to the International Monetary Fund. But, Iran has not been sitting on its oil wells having a pity-party. As the saying goes, there is more than one way to get around the block.
Iran has found a way to get around the oil sanctions and while clever, it is not without its dangers. It seems that while the world has been under the impression that Iranian oil exports are way down, the latest data from a group called TankerTrackers says otherwise.
TankerTrackers monitors oil shipments around the globe, providing needed data and satellite imagery to exporters and importing countries. Generally, legitimate ships adhere to an international law called the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, that ships must keep their transponders on at all times.
Large tankers loading at Kharg Terminal  offshore Persian Gulf in 1967. As of 2015  the Kharg oil te...
Large tankers loading at Kharg Terminal, offshore Persian Gulf in 1967. As of 2015, the Kharg oil terminal was handling about 90% of Iran's crude exports.
National Iranian Oil Company
Transponders - known as Automatic Identification System or AIS are monitored using GPS - and can be turned off if clandestine activities are involved, like pirating or in this case, if a country doesn't want the world to know where its tankers laden with oil are located. And according to the Financial Times, Iran’s oil exports had averaged more than 2.2m barrels a day.
Based on these latest figures, Iran's exports of oil have only dropped about 10 percent from the level prior to sanctions beginning. Samir Madani, one of TankerTrackers co-founders, said it has been well documented that Iran has been using ghost ships to export their oil.
This method obscures the actual size of the ships and the amount of oil they may be carrying. But TankerTrackers also makes use of daily high-resolution satellite images from their partner, Planet Labs. Madani said his team had been able to identify more ships leaving, following their journey even when they do not give off a conventional signal.
And the Iranian oil exports, legal or not, are exerting some influence on global oil markets. It will be interesting to see what happens come November 4.
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