September 14, 2012 | Forbes

About Those Blacklisted Iranian Ships Calling at Libyan Ports…

September 14, 2012 | Forbes

About Those Blacklisted Iranian Ships Calling at Libyan Ports…

The U.S. is looking for ways to beef up security in Libya, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Two warships and 50 marines have been dispatched, as a first move. One item that ought to be added to the list: Could something be done to stop Iranian-linked cargo ships, blacklisted by the U.S., from calling at Libyan ports?

Over the past two months, at least three Iranian-linked container ships, all blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury, have called at the Libyan port of Benghazi. One of them, the Parmis, put in at Benghazi Anchorage as recently as August 30. Since then, it has since been meandering along the Libyan coast, going west to the Libyan port of Misurata, then doubling back east this week, past the Libyan port of Sirte. For the Parmis, this is a voyage that began in early August at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, thence to the United Arab Emirates, then Egypt, and on to Libya. This repeats a similar circuit, in which the Parmis sailed in June from Iran, calling in early July at Benghazi.

That’s not to suggest any ties between Iran, or the Parmis in particular, and Tuesday’s attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi. The full tale of who master-minded or helped stage that armed assault remains to be uncovered. But whatever answers might eventually emerge to those urgent questions, it seems reasonable to warn that amid the chaos and carnage bedeviling Libya, port calls from sanctioned Iranian vessels do not augur well.

Even assuming that Iran had nothing to do with the assault on America’s diplomatic post in Benghazi, Tuesday’s bloodshed there served up a terrible reminder that Libya is ripe for the kind of lethal trouble that Iran’s regime likes to stir and exploit.

The U.S. government has described Iran as the world’s “leading state sponsor of terrorism.”  The U.S. State Department, in its most recent annual report on terrorism, released in July, noted that Iran had “increased its terrorist-related activity, likely in an effort to exploit the uncertain political conditions resulting from the Arab spring.” The same report noted that “Iran continued to provide financial, material and logistical support for terrorist and militant groups throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.” This includes “weapons, training and funding” for Palestinian terrorist groups, and “weapons and training” to help Syria’s Assad regime in a crackdown that has cost many thousands of lives.

The same State Department report reminds us that the aspirations of Iran’s terror masters extend all the way to Washington. Just last year U.S. authorities discovered that “elements of the Iranian regime had conceived and funded a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in Washington D.C.” Nor is Iran’s regime a stranger to al Qaeda. State’s report also notes that Iran has “allowed AQ members to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iranian territory, enabling AQ to carry funds and move facilitators and operatives to South Asia and elsewhere.”

Against that backdrop, it is alarming that ship-tracking databases show Iranian-linked ships calling at Benghazi. According to data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence, along with the Parmis, at least two other Iranian-linked container ships have called at Benghazi since mid-July: the Tandis and the Armis. All three vessels have followed similar routes, from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, via the Suez Canal and ports in Egypt, to Libya.

All three ships — the Parmis, Tandis and Armis — appear on Treasury’s blacklist of “blocked vessels.” All three are blacklisted for their connections to Iran’s main state merchant fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, also known as IRISL. SInce 2008, IRISL has been under U.S. sanctions for its role in abetting Iran’s illicit traffic, notably Iran’s proliferation efforts. Just last fall, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Adam Szubin, elaborated on IRISL’s “alarming involvement” in “Iran’s illicit procurement activities.” Szubin explained that IRISL “had placed its international network of ships and hubs into the service of the Iranian military, particularly the arm of its military overseeing ballistic missile development.” Whether IRISL might also be delivering cargoes of a disturbing nature seems a question worth exploring.

IRISL, in its effort to dodge sanctions, has made a habit of reassigning nominal ownership of its vessels. renaming and reflagging scores of ships, often multiple times — frequently reshuffling the facades in batch lots among new flags and fresh domiciles for corporate fronts. But each vessel can be tracked via its unique hull number, or IMO, assigned under rules of the International Maritime Organization for the life of the ship.

Information from Treasury, combined with shipping data from Lloyd’s, shows that for the ships of this particular trio calling recently at Benghazi, the rotating front companies and flags of convenience have been shuffled around in synchronization. Prior to 2009, all three ships were flagged to Iran, as part of the IRISL fleet, and had clearly Iranian names. For instance, prior to 2009, the Parmis was named the Iran Piroozi. Since then, with the U.S. Treasury chasing them away from one shell arrangement and flag after another, these ships have been reassigned to nominal owners in the Isle of Man, then Panama, then in the Marshall Islands; and reflagged from Iran to Barbados to Tanzania.

What flags or owners these three ships are now operating under is, at the moment, disturbingly difficult to determine. Though, the common theme remains that all are blacklisted by the U.S. for their ties to IRISL, and all three make a habit of calling at Iran, and, as it happens, Egypt and Libya. As of Thursday, while the Parmis was still off the coast of Libya, the Armis was at Ras Isa Terminal in Yemen, and the Tandis was at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

According to Lloyd’s, all three ships have been owned recently by an outfit called Andulena Corporation, registered in the Marshall Islands. But according to the Marshall Islands corporate registry, which is actually headquartered in the U.S., in Reston, Virginia, Andulena Corporation is defunct. In a phone interview this week, a registry employee said that the company was annulled on May 30th of this year. All three ships still show up on a number of ship-tracking databases as flagged to Tanzania. But under U.S. pressure, officials of the Tanzania maritime registry agreed last month to stop hosting Iranian-linked ships blacklisted by the U.S. A search of the online Tanzania shipping register shows that the Parmis, Tandis and Armis are no longer listed.

Documents showing the cargoes of such ships are not publicly available. Treasury has in any event warned about IRISL’s “deceptive practices,”  which have extended in the past not only to networks of front companies, but to false cargo manifests.

But this much is clear: All three of these container ships, before sailing for Libya, called at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where the container terminal is operated by a terror-linked Iranian company called Tidewater Middle East Co. Last year the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Tidewater as “a port operating company owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that has been used by the IRGC for illicit shipments.”

It’s worth adding that under U.S. jurisdiction, it is potentially a crime to have any dealings with these ships. Anyone outside U.S. jurisdiction who engages in business with them is at risk of being cut off from commerce with the U.S.

In remarks Wednesday on the deaths of American personnel in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed that “A free and stable Libya is still in America’s interest and security, and we will not turn our back on that.” Surely, regardless of who was behind the Sept. 11 attack, the aspirations for a free and stable Libya are better served without the presence of blacklisted IRISL vessels dispatched from terror-linked ports in Iran. Given the costs and risks shouldered by Americans to help free Libya from the tyranny of Moammar Gaddafi, it would reflect better on Libyans — both in their own interests, and those of their benefactors — were they to honor U.S. sanctions on Iran by turning away its ships. Surely it would be in America’s interest to try much harder to help Libya do that?

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