Tag Archives: Iran sanctions

By Hook or By Crook (or Both): How Iran Beats US Sanctions

Persian Gulf waters off Iraq have become a new, important waypoint for Iranian oil smugglers looking to avoid U.S. sanctions…Iranian tankers now regularly transfer crude to other ships just miles offshore the major Iraqi port of Al Faw, according to the officials. The oil is then mixed with cargoes from other places to disguise its origin, and it eventually ends up on sale in world markets, they say.


In one example from March 2020,  according to a shipping manifest reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, 230,000 barrels of oil from the state-run National Iranian Oil Co. were transferred to a vessel moored in Iraqi waters. The cargo was blended with Iraqi oil and passed to other ships, according to people familiar with the operation. The ultimate destination of the oil wasn’t clear.

The people familiar with the transfer said the operation was part of an increasingly common and lucrative business that involves transferring and mixing cargoes with other vessels multiple times and then selling the oil with documents that declare it is as Iraqi. Iraqi oil can be sold at a significant premium to oil of Iranian origin.

Iran has increasingly tried to find ways to get its crude to market despite the U.S. sanctions. Iran’s daily crude and condensates exports averaged 827,000 barrels a day in the first six months of this year, according to U.S. shipping-information company TankerTrackers.com. That is up 28% from the previous six months, but far below the level of 2.7 million barrels a day in May 2018 before the sanctions.

“We While some of Iran’s oil exports go to countries not aligned with the U.S., such as Syria and China, they often pass through allies such as the United Arab Emirates or Iraq, where their origin is being concealed, according to U.S. officials.

Excerpt from Sarah McFarlane and Benoit Faucon, Iraq Emerges as Hurdle to Enforcing Iran Oil Sanctions, WSJ, Oct. 24, 2020

Strangling China with Hong Kong: the Politics of Fear

The U.S. determination  that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China, under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, will have significant implications for the city’s exporters and businesses.  Sensitive U.S. technologies could no longer be imported into Hong Kong, and the city’s exports might be hit with the same tariffs levied on Chinese trade.

But the act doesn’t cover the far more extensive role Hong Kong plays as China’s main point of access to global finance.  As of 2019, mainland Chinese banks held 8,816 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($1.137 trillion) in assets in the semiautonomous city, an amount that has risen 373% in the last decade…. China’s banks do much of their international business, mostly conducted in U.S. dollars, from Hong Kong. With Shanghai inside China’s walled garden of capital controls, there is no obvious replacement.

While the U.S. doesn’t directly control Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, Washington has demonstrated its extensive reach over the dollar system, with penalties against Korean, French and Lebanese financiers for dealing with sanctioned parties. The U.S. recently threatened Iraq’s access to the New York Federal Reserve, demonstrating a growing willingness to use financial infrastructure as a tool of foreign policy.  Even though the U.S. can’t legislate Hong Kong’s ability to support Chinese banks out of existence, the role of an international funding hub is greatly reduced if your counterparties are too fearful to do business with you.

Putting the ability of Chinese banks to conduct dollar-denominated activities at risk would be deleterious to China’s ability to operate financially overseas, posing a challenge for the largely dollar-denominated Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. It would also put the more financially fragile parts of the country, like its debt-laden property developers, under strain.  China’s hope to develop yuan into an influential currency also centers on Hong Kong’s remaining a viable global financial center—more than 70% of international trade in the yuan is done in the city.

Excerpts from Mike Bird, How the US Could Really Hurt China, WSJ, May 290, 2020

How Iranian Oil Escapes US Sanctions

 At least two tankers have ferried Iranian fuel oil to Asia in February 2019 despite U.S. sanctions against such shipments, according to a Reuters analysis of ship-tracking data and port information, as well as interviews with brokers and traders.  The shipments were loaded onto tankers with documents showing the fuel oil was Iraqi. But three Iraqi oil industry sources and Prakash Vakkayil, a manager at United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipping services firm Yacht International Co, said the papers were forged.  The people said they did not know who forged the documents, nor when.

“Some buyers…will want Iranian oil regardless of U.S. strategic objectives to deny Tehran oil revenue, and Iran will find a way to keep some volumes flowing,” said Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.  While the United States has granted eight countries temporary waivers allowing limited purchases of Iranian crude oil, these exemptions do not cover products refined from crude, including fuel oil, mainly used to power the engines of large ships. Documents forwarded to Reuters by ship owners say a 300,000 tonne-supertanker, the Grace 1, took on fuel oil at Basra, Iraq, between Dec. 10 and 12, 2018. But Basra port loading schedules reviewed by Reuters do not list the Grace 1 as being in port during those dates.  One Iraqi industry source with knowledge of the port’s operations confirmed there were no records of the Grace 1 at Basra during this period. 

Grace 1 oil tanker

Reuters examined data from four ship-tracking information providers – Refinitiv, Kpler, IHS Markit and Vessel Finder – to locate the Grace 1 during that time. All four showed that the Grace 1 had its Automatic Identification System (AIS), or transponder, switched off between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2018, meaning its location could not be tracked.  The Grace 1 then re-appeared in waters near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh, fully loaded, data showed. The cargo was transferred onto two smaller ships in UAE waters in January, from where one ship delivered fuel oil to Singapore in February 2019.  Shipping documents showed about 284,000 tonnes of fuel oil were transferred in the cargoes tracked by Reuters, worth about $120 million at current prices…

One of those vessels, the 130,000 tonne-capacity Kriti Island, offloaded fuel oil into a storage terminal in Singapore around Feb. 5 to 7. Reuters was unable to determine who purchased the fuel oil for storage in Singapore.  The Kriti Island is managed by Greece’s Avin International SA… Avin International’s Chief Executive Officer George Mylonas told Reuters. Mylonas confirmed the Kriti Island took on fuel oil from the Grace 1.There is no indication that Avin International knowingly shipped Iranian fuel oil. Mylonas said his firm had conducted all necessary due diligence to ensure the cargo’s legitimate origin….

Kriti Island oil tanker

Excerpts from Roslan Khasawneh et al, Exclusive: How Iran fuel oil exports beat U.S. sanctions in tanker odyssey to Asia, Reuters, Mar. 20, 2019

The Sanctions Busters: Germany and France

The steps by Europe’s most powerful countries are part of their campaign to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew the U.S. in May. Their goal is to help European companies continue some business activity with Iran despite sweeping new U.S. sanctions on the country and any company that does business with it.

France or Germany will host the corporation that would handle the payments channel, the diplomats said. If France hosts it, a German official will head the corporation and vice versa. Both countries will help fund the corporation.  The payments channel, known as a special purpose vehicle, or SPV, would use a system of credits to facilitate compensation for goods traded between Iran and Europe—allowing some trade to proceed without the need for European commercial banks to make or receive payments to Iran.

U.S. pressure on Austria and Luxembourg recently prompted those countries to reject European Union requests to host it, raising the prospect that the initiative might collapse, the diplomats said.  The company would be owned directly by participating European governments—an arrangement intended to dissuade the U.S. from directly targeting it with sanctions, diplomats said.

Laurence Norman , France and Germany Step In to Circumvent Iran Sanctions, WSJ, Nov. 26, 2018

Skip Pakistan: new way into Afghanistan

A port being developed in the southern Iranian city of Chabahar underscores some of the dilemmas U.S. policy makers face in implementing sanctions against Tehran.  Strategically located on the Gulf of Oman and named for an Iranian revolutionary war hero, the Shahid Beheshti Port is exactly the sort of Iranian economic development the Trump administration wants to stop with sanctions that kick in on Nov. 5, 2018…

Once completed, the port—a small part of which started initial operations in December—could help Iran by strengthening economic ties with South and Central Asia, providing an export point for its oil beyond the Persian Gulf and functioning as a strategic military asset.   But it could also be a critical economic lifeline for Afghanistan, where the U.S. has tried for 16 years to strengthen and stabilize the government so thousands of U.S. troops can come home.

The port also could be a big boon to India, an increasingly close partner of the U.S. in Asia. India wants Chabahar port activities exempted from sanctions. Indian companies are mostly equipping and operating the facility. If the port is completed, they are expected to be among the biggest users of the port in order to participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan—something the Trump administration has asked India to get more involved in—and establish a stronger economic presence in Central Asia.

The Chabahar port has long been seen as a potential way around Pakistan, a sworn enemy of India that believes holding sway over Afghanistan is critical to its own security.  Pakistan has squelched trade between India and Afghanistan across its territory. It wants Afghanistan to eventually transport goods through a competing Pakistani port on the Gulf of Oman that is being developed with China…

“If you stop Chabahar, you make Afghanistan permanently dependent on Pakistan,” said Barnett Rubin, a New York University expert on South Asia who has advised Western governments on policy in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

Exceprts from Iranian Port Project Poses a Dilemma for U.S., WSJ, Oct. 29, 2018

Iran Defeats Sanctions through Chinese Networks

A Chinese citizen faces U.S. criminal charges that he conspired to export to Iran products that could be used in that country’s nuclear program, the U.S. Justice Department.  Sihai Cheng supplied thousands of parts that have nuclear applications to Eyvaz, a company involved in Iran’s nuclear weapons program, in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran, federal prosecutors said.

Sihai Cheng of Shanghai and Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili of Tehran allegedly plotted between 2009 and 2011 to send pressure measuring sensors, or transducers, ordered from MKS Instruments Inc. in Andover, USA, to Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing Co., a Tehran-based business that has supplied parts to Iranian nuclear facilities.  Transducers are used in commercial products, but can also be used in gas centrifuges to convert natural uranium into a form suited for nuclear weapons, the indictment states.

Prosecutors said MKS Instruments sent the transducers to China without knowing they were ultimately bound for Iran.

In February 2009, Jamili wrote to Cheng that Eyvaz Technic was seeking to obtain a type of transducer. Eyvaz has “supplied parts for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons,” the indictment states.  After receiving the 2009 e-mail, Cheng allegedly plotted with unidentified coconspirators at MKS-Shanghai, a wholly owned Chinese subsidiary of MKS in Andover, to set up front companies to pose as the intended recipients of the materials, which were ordered from the Andover office.  In addition, MKS-Shanghai employees listed other legitimate Chinese companies as recipients in purchase orders sent to Andover, authorities said.  More than 1,000 orders for MKStransducers with a combined value of over $1.8 million were placed between April 2009 and January 2011, the indictment said. Once the parts arrived in China, Cheng had them shipped to Eyvaz, the Iranian company accused of supplying material for Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

Prosecutors wrote that MKS in Andover “unwittingly assisted MKS-Shanghai in fraudulently obtaining an export license for a large quantity of pressure transducers.”  Authorities say there is evidence MKS products reached the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran, which began operating thousands of gas centrifuges as early as 2007.  “Publicly available photographs of Natanz [with then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] show numerous MKS pressure transducers attached to Iran’s gas centrifuge cascades,” the indictment says.

Excerpt from Chinese national indicted in US over exports to Iran,  Reuters, Apr. 4, 2014 and from Travis Andersen and Jennifer Smith, Men accused of sending nuclear supplies to Iran, Boston Globe, Apr. 5, 2014

A Love Affair with Iran: Glencore and Trafigura

Glencore, a commodity trading house run by the billionaire Ivan Glasenberg, traded $659m (£430m) of goods, including aluminium oxide, to Iran last year, the Guardian has established.  The company…has admitted that some of its aluminium oxide ended up in the hands of Iranian Aluminium Company (Iralco).  Trafigura, another commodity trading house, has also admitted to trading an unspecified aluminium oxide (also known as alumina) with Iralco in the past.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has named Iralco as supplying aluminium to Iran Centrifuge Technology Company (Tesa), which is part of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI). Aluminium oxide is an important material in gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium.  At the time of the Glencore and Trafigura trades with Iralco, it was not illegal or a breach of sanctions to supply Iran with alumina. It is unknown whether Glencore or Trafigura’s alumina passed from Iralco to Tesa, or whether it was used in centrifuge construction.

Since 2006, AEOI has been subject to UN sanctions designed to prevent Iran’s nuclear armament ambitions. Trading with Tesa has been specifically banned under US, EU and UK sanctions since July 2010. Iralco was added to the EU sanctions list in December 2012.  Glencore said it “ceased transactions” with Iralco immediately when it learned of its links with Tesa, and the last trade was in October 2012. “Prior to EU sanctions in December 2012, we were not aware of a link/contract between Iralco and Tesa,” the company said in a statement.  Glencore said it is “reliant on the relevant regulatory bodies/governments to advise us on developments in who we can/can’t do business with”.

Tehran, which some experts say already has enough enriched uranium to make several nuclear weapons, is in the middle of upgrading its stock of more than 10,000 centrifuges. The IAEA said Iran is replacing outdated centrifuges with thousands of more powerful IR-2m models.  Experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (Isis) in London said: “Iran is trying to replace maraging [super-strong] steel end-caps with high strength aluminium end-caps.”  Mark Fitzpatrick, director of Isis’s nonproliferation and disarmament programme, said the new centrifuges could enrich uranium four to five times faster than the existing ones. Iran insists its enriched material is for peaceful use, not for nuclear weapons, but it has refused to allow IAEA inspectors into several of its atomic facilities.

The Guardian has learned that Glencore traded $659m worth of metals, wheat and coal with Iranian entities during 2012. Buried deep in its annual report, one of Glencore’s US affiliates, Century Aluminium, 46% owned by Glencore, states: “During 2012 non-US affiliates of the largest stockholder of the company [Glencore] entered into sales contracts for wheat and coal as well as sale and purchase contracts for metal oxides and metals with Iranian entities, which are either fully or majority owned by the GOI [government of Iran].”…..

Trafigura, which came to global political attention when it was revealed that a licensed independent contractor of a ship it had chartered dumped tonnes of toxic oil slops in Ivory Coast, said: “We can confirm that Trafigura has traded with Iralco in the past. In October 2011, a physical swap agreement was reached whereby Trafigura provided alumina to Iralco in return for aluminium for Trafigura to export worldwide. No deliveries have been made or exports received since new EU sanctions were published in December 2012.

Excerpts, Rupert Neate, Glencore traded with Iranian supplier to nuclear weapon’s programme, Guardian,  Apr. 21, 2013

The Sanctions Busters: Iran and Friends

The past 15 months have been grim for Iranian businesses which trade with the outside world. America has tightened sanctions against Iran’s financial system; the European Union has put an embargo on its oil; and international traders are wary of dealing with the country.Iranian businesses are used to fighting for survival. The Islamic Republic has faced sanctions of one sort or another since its creation in 1979. Parts for Iran’s ageing civilian airliners trickle in from the black market. A host of sanctioned products, from industrial chemicals to anti-aircraft missiles, come from China. Almost any good can be found in Iran, at a price.  Amir, a manager in a mining business, says he regularly meets British and German suppliers in Turkey, to obtain the most advanced equipment to tap Iran’s mineral wealth. “Foreign firms are terrified of doing something illegal, but in the end they are businessmen,” he says. “The Europeans send our cargoes to Dubai, documented as the final destination. From there we are in charge.” Amir uses Gulf middlemen to change the documents, for a fee of 3-5%, before the goods are shipped to Bandar Abbas, Iran’s largest port.

Because few international banks deal with sanctioned Iranian institutions, Iranian importers have to find roundabout ways of paying suppliers. Amir uses a network of Iranian go-betweens who own companies in South Africa and Malaysia to pay his suppliers’ Western banks. He says 30% of his revenues are spent on avoiding sanctions—not counting the time involved.

The sanctions have hit Iran’s oil industry the hardest. Iran’s government depends on oil for more than half of its revenue, but exports have fallen and grown more volatile. The country’s total production is a quarter less than the 3.6m barrels per day it pumped in 2011.  One way of keeping sales going is to dress up Iranian oil as Iraqi. Another trick is to move Iranian oil onto foreign tankers on the open sea. Once crews have switched off their ships’ tracking beacons, this is all but undetectable. The oil is sold at a discount. Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a big market for Iranian oil. Business is down, says Sajad, but European firms still trade with Iran, using Swiss subsidiaries which broker deals with the Iranians and collect the crude using tankers under the flag of a third country.

The sanctions have been a fillip for the few institutions still handling Iranian money. One foreign bank charges 5% on cash moving in or out of Iran, says an Iranian shipping source. Normal business rates are a fraction of a percent, but Iranian firms have little choice.

Sometimes the fear of sanctions is more effective than the sanctions themselves. A customer in the UAE owed $1.3m to Sajad’s shipping firm but would only send it in costly small instalments. Sajad flew to the Gulf to pick up the balance in cash. “I was nervous about what I would say to customs from either country if they checked my suitcase,” he says. “I decided I would tell the truth. I am not a criminal.” But no one did.

Dodging sanctions in Iran: Around the block, Economist, Mar. 3, 2013, at 68

The Flight of Gold: what Afghanistan, China and Iran have in common

Packed into hand luggage and tucked into jacket pockets, roughly hewed bars of gold are being flown out of Kabul with increasing regularity, confounding Afghan and American officials who fear money launderers have found a new way to spirit funds from the country.  Most of the gold is being carried on commercial flights destined for Dubai, according to airport security reports and officials. The amounts carried by single couriers are often heavy enough that passengers flying from Kabul to the Persian Gulf emirate would be well advised to heed warnings about the danger of bags falling from overhead compartments. One courier, for instance, carried nearly 60 pounds of gold bars, each about the size of an iPhone, aboard an early morning flight in mid-October, according to an airport security report. The load was worth more than $1.5 million.

The gold is fully declared and legal to fly. Some, if not most, is legitimately being sent by gold dealers seeking to have old and damaged jewelry refashioned into new pieces by skilled craftsmen in the Persian Gulf, said Afghan officials and gold dealers.  But gold dealers in Kabul and current and former Kabul airport officials say there has been a surge in shipments since early summer. The talk of a growing exodus of gold from Afghanistan has been spreading among the business community here, and in recent weeks has caught the attention of Afghan and American officials. The officials are now puzzling over the origin of the gold — very little is mined in Afghanistan, although larger mines are planned — and why so much appears to be heading for Dubai.

“We are investigating it, and if we find this is a way of laundering money, we will intervene,” said Noorullah Delawari, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank. Yet he acknowledged that there were more questions than answers at this point. “I don’t know where so much gold would come from, unless you can tell me something about it,” he said in an interview. Or, as a European official who tracks the Afghan economy put it, “new mysteries abound” as the war appears to be drawing to a close.

Figuring out what precisely is happening in the Afghan economy remains as confounding as ever. Nearly 90 percent of the financial activity takes place outside formal banks. Written contracts are the exception, receipts are rare and statistics are often unreliable. Money laundering is commonplace, say Western and Afghan officials.  As a result, with the gold, “right now you’re stuck in that situation we usually are: is there something bad going on here or is this just the Afghan way of commerce?” said a senior American official who tracks illicit financial networks.

There is reason to be suspicious: the gold shipments track with the far larger problem of cash smuggling. For years, flights have left Kabul almost every day carrying thick wads of bank notes — dollars, euros, Norwegian kroner, Saudi Arabian riyals and other currencies — stuffed into suitcases, packed into boxes and shrink-wrapped onto pallets. At one point, cash was even being hidden in food trays aboard now-defunct Pamir Airways flights to Dubai.

Last year alone, Afghanistan’s central bank says, roughly $4.5 billion in cash was spirited out through the airport. Efforts to stanch the flow have had limited impact, and concerns about money laundering persist, according to a report released last week by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  The unimpeded “bulk cash flows raise the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling — tools often used to finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations,” the report said. The cash, and now the gold, is most often taken to Dubai, where officials are known for asking few questions. Many wealthy Afghans park their money and families in the emirate, and gold dealers say more middle-class Afghans are sending money and gold — seen as a safeguard against economic ruin — to Dubai as talk of a postwar economic collapse grows louder. But given Dubai’s reputation as a haven for laundered money, an Afghan official said that the “obvious suspicion” is that at least some of the apparent growth in gold shipments to Dubai is tied to the myriad illicit activities — opium smuggling, corruption, Taliban taxation schemes — that have come to define Afghanistan’s economy.

There are also indications that Iran could be dipping into the Afghan gold trade. It is already buying up dollars and euros here to circumvent American and European sanctions, and it may be using gold for the same purpose.  Yahya, a dealer in Kabul, said other gold traders were helping Iran buy the precious metal here. Payment was being made in oil or with Iranian rials, which readily circulate in western Afghanistan. The Afghan dealers are then taking it to Dubai, where the gold is sold for dollars. The money is then moved to China, where it was used to buy needed goods or simply funneled back to Iran, said Yahya, who like many Afghans uses a single name.

Excerpt, MATTHEW ROSENBERG, An Afghan Mystery: Why Are Large Shipments of Gold Leaving the Country?, NY Times, Dec. 15, 2012

How Iran Copes with Sanctions?

According to the latest figures from the Natural Gas Vehicle Knowledge Base, Iran, with the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Russia, in 2011 became the world leader in natural gas vehicles with some 2.9 million on the road, narrowly edging Pakistan, which is trailed by Argentina, Brazil and India, respectively.  Iran’s reliance on its cleaner fossil fuel seems unlikely to diminish as international sanctions continue to bear down on its nuclear program, which in turn have curbed imports of gasoline; though Iran has large oil reserves, its ability to refine its own gasoline falls well short of its needs.  But for ordinary Iranian motorists, natural gas is less a geopolitical or environmental issue than a pocketbook concern. “This sort of fuel is cheap, and it gets me home every day — that’s what I care about,” said Sasan Ahmadi, a 42-year-old office assistant filling up his Iranian-made Kia Pride at a natural-gas station for his hour commute home.

The government began promoting natural gas about a decade ago, and not just in response to American-led sanctions. A big initial reason was the increasingly thick yellow blankets of smog that often engulf greater Tehran and its 12 million inhabitants. That was a result of rising auto sales by domestic carmakers like Iran Khodro and Saipa, which took off as oil revenue began rising sharply around 15 years ago, enriching tens of millions of Iranians…..

As a means to counter outside economic pressure, natural gas’s usefulness is clear. Because of its inadequate investment in oil refineries, Iran has long been forced to refine a portion of its own crude at refineries in Europe to satisfy rising domestic demand for gasoline. So when the European Union in July barred gasoline sales to the country, natural gas helped to blunt the blow.

Despite the sanctions against Iran, motorists like Mr. Ahmadi can make their commute for the equivalent of less than a penny a mile using the alternative fuel at subsidized prices. Gasoline is more expensive, especially because government subsidies have been reduced, but it is still incredibly cheap by Western standards: less than $1 a gallon….

Excerpt, THOMAS ERDBRINK, Oil-Rich Iran, Natural Gas Turns Wheels, New York Times, Oct. 23, 2012