* NITC argues not a government entity
* Sanctions pressure on Iran gathers pace
By Jonathan Saul
LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) - New names for Iran’s oil tankers are part of its national tanker company NITC’s defence against tighter United States sanctions which target it, the company says.
NITC ships are taking to the seas with colourful new identities, swapping Farsi names for those that cover a range of human virtues.
Freedom, Truth, Honesty, Justice and Leadership should resonate nobly in international waters; Brawny, Valor and Mars carry with them a hint of steel.
“The change of flags of the fleet was a transparent and pre-emptive action to avoid breaching the new sanction law which was intended to be implemented in the concerned flag state,” the National Iranian Tanker Company said in a statement.
The ruse, in a cat-and-mouse game with Washington and Brussels over sanctions against its nuclear programme, is unlikely to work.
“Anyone who is in the business is going to know the real identity of a specific vessel and renaming is not going to fool anyone,” a former oil tanker captain said. A tanker can still be tracked by its unique identification number.
Another ship industry source said: “It seems more of a subconscious move to gently steer people away from the Iranian identity of the ship. It’s at best making it less obvious that it’s Iranian.”
NITC has also reflagged most of its tankers, swapping Malta and Cyprus flags for those of Tanzania and the tiny South Pacific island of Tuvalu.
“We therefore hereby strongly refute any allegation of being a governmental entity or a property of the government of Iran and reiterate that the vessels within the fleet have always been operated legally and in accordance to the applicable national international laws and regulations,” NITC said.
The U.S. Congress passed new measures this week aimed at further restricting Iran’s oil revenues. The bill includes requiring President Barack Obama to determine whether NITC has links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which would lead to sanctions.
NITC has already been in the firing line and on July 12, the U.S. Treasury identified 58 of its vessels and 27 of its affiliates as extensions of the state, which would undermine Iran’s attempts to use renamed, disguised vessels to evade sanctions, the department said.
A senior NITC official, who declined to be named, said the group would challenge the sanctions, but did not elaborate.
“NITC has always been transparent in its activities and has honoured international laws and treaties to their fullest,” it said.
Founded in 1955, NITC went private in 2000. Its main shareholders are three Iranian pension funds.
“Accordingly its beneficiaries are over 5 million retired people,” NITC said. “There is no single budget allocated to NITC by the government and it is not a property of the government of Iran.”
Nevertheless, there have been growing questions over who is running NITC. In late January, Hamid Behbahani, formerly Iran’s road and transportation minister, took the helm.
Behbahani is a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and there has been speculation in the shipping industry that his arrival was linked to moves by the Iranian president to entrench his authority in strategic sectors, notably transportation and energy.
Ahmadinejad’s rivals impeached Behbahani for mismanagement in February 2011.
“Having Behbahani there does not signal the type of independence that NITC is seeking,” the shipping industry source said.
Behbahani told Reuters in February 2012 that it was NITC’s board of directors who decided on the appointment of the chairman and CEO, and believed he had the “required qualifications as well as the capability”.
As sanctions on Iran have gathered pace, including an EU embargo on the Islamic Republic’s oil, NITC is increasingly playing a major role in transporting Iranian crude with the tanker group having to adapt.
Earlier this year, tracking transponders on many NITC vessels were switched off, making it harder to monitor ship movements.
There is nothing to stop the renaming or re-flagging of a vessel and specific regulations are at the discretion of individual flag states.
Tanzania said earlier this month it was looking into the reflagging of some NITC tankers to the Tanzanian flag, while prominent U.S. lawmaker Howard Berman urged Tuvalu to stop reflagging Iranian tankers and warned its government of the risks of falling foul of U.S. sanctions.
Officials from Tuvalu, whose estimated population is under 15,000, could not be immediately reached for comment.
“It’s not easy being NITC at the moment and they are trying to do whatever they can to stay in business,” another ship industry source said. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game and they cannot continue the way they could even a couple of months ago, let alone two years ago.” (Editing by William Hardy, Richard Mably)