A senior U.S. official says Washington is monitoring ships involved in clandestine transfers of Iranian oil and will hold anyone involved in such transfers responsible for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
"We are closely tracking ship-to-ship transfers of [Iranian] oil to evade our oil sanctions," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions David Peyman in an exclusive interview with VOA Persian recently at the State Department. "And we're working closely with foreign governments to ensure they are monitoring ship-to-ship transfers off their coasts."
One of the few companies monitoring global oil shipments, TankerTrackers.com, reported last week that it identified in February two cases of clandestine ship-to-ship transfers of Iranian oil with the transponders of the vessels involved being disabled. In an email sent Friday to VOA Persian, TankerTrackers.com co-founder Samir Madani said in both cases, a ship transferred Iranian oil to another ship before a third ship picked up the oil from the second ship and delivered it to a port.
"One transfer took around three months to complete, while the other happened during the span of a month or so," Madani said.
TankerTrackers.com has said Iranian crude oil tankers have been trying to hide their activities since August by switching off the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders that reveal their position and other information.
President Donald Trump re-imposed U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports, Tehran's top revenue source, in November as part of his withdrawal from what he viewed as a flawed 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The sanctions unilaterally barred Iran from exporting oil to all but eight governments who were given six months to reduce their Iranian oil purchases to zero.
Peyman said U.S. authorities will act against ship owners, managers, insurance providers and mortgagees linked to vessels involved in the clandestine transfers of Iranian oil at sea. "If you are engaged in evasive action, which is really the worst kind of violation when it comes to U.S. sanctions, we will hold you accountable," Peyman said.
Flying their flags
In another U.S. step aimed at cracking down on Iranian efforts to evade oil sanctions, Peyman said Washington has secured pledges from several nations to avoid putting their flags on Iranian oil tankers.
Last month, a State Department news site said Panama stripped 59 Iranian-linked ships of their right to fly the Panamanian flag, in a move aimed at supporting U.S. sanctions. It said Panama's purge of the tankers from its ship registry, one of the world's largest, will make it harder for Iran to deliver oil to ports around the world.
"Panama really led the way for other countries to follow suit by pulling their own flags and for other countries to commit to the U.S. that they will not reflag those ships that the Panamanians withdrew their flag from," Peyman said.
The State Department declined to provide examples to VOA Persian of countries that committed not to reflag Iranian vessels that have been de-flagged by Panama.
Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has said Tehran will not comply with what it considers to be "illegal" U.S. sanctions. Speaking on a Jan. 10 visit to Baghdad, Zanganeh also said Iran will not discuss the volume or destination of its oil exports while it remained under U.S. sanctions.
Peyman said Washington also will take action against any company that uses a new European financial mechanism to engage Iran in transactions that violate U.S. sanctions. Britain, France and Germany launched the Institute in Support of Trade Exchanges, or INSTEX, in January to enable European companies to conduct business with Iran using barter techniques that bypass the U.S. financial system.
INSTEX's EU sponsors initially intend for it to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran, but its scope could be expanded to other types of business. U.S. sanctions on Iran contain exemptions for the provision of humanitarian aid, food and medicine to the Iranian people.
Iran has called on EU leaders to ensure that it continues to receive international trade benefits promised under the 2015 nuclear deal that EU nations have sought to uphold following the U.S. pullout. But Iranian officials in recent weeks have expressed disappointment with what they view as the EU's slow rollout of INSTEX.
Tehran has good reason to be disappointed, according to Peyman.
"I've been to several countries in Europe, I've spoken with very large industry groups and businesses in the private sector … and every indication that I'm receiving is that there is absolutely no interest to utilize a European financial mechanism to do business with Iran," he said.
Peyman, who was born in Iran, said no "responsible" European businesses want to trade with an Iranian government they perceive as responsible for killing Americans and sponsoring terrorism on European soil. He said European companies also make an independent business decision, based on a cost-benefit analysis, to do business with the United States and use the U.S. financial system rather than to maintain a relationship with Iran.
Tehran sees itself as a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of terrorism.
"To the extent that there is any appetite by [companies] to use [INSTEX], we'll be tracking it very, very closely," Peyman said. "Those companies' ties to the U.S. financial system will be looked at, their use of U.S. banks will be looked at, and their use of non-U.S. banks that have ties to U.S. banks will be looked at. And we will look at any potential violations, direct or indirect, knowing or unknowing, of U.S. sanctions laws and will vigorously enforce [them]."
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.