Iran's NITC Replaces Tanker Boss As Pressure Mounts
* NITC fleet seen vital channel for Iran oil exports
* Sanctions hurting Iran's economy
(Reuters) - Iran's NITC has replaced Hamid Behbahani, a former minister and ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as head of the state tanker company, Mehr news agency reported, just over a year after he was appointed.
National Iranian Tanker Company, which has a fleet with a carrying capacity of at least 72 million barrels of oil, has been blacklisted by the West as part of tougher sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.
Mehr on Saturday said: "Hamid Behbahani was dismissed as the managing director of the National Iranian Tanker Company. Based on a decision by the managing board of the National Iranian Tanker Company, Ali Akbar Safa'ie has replaced Hamid Behbahani."
NITC officials were not immediately available for comment on Monday.
Mehr, which did not give a reason for Behbahani's departure, said Safa'ie had previously been an NITC board member. Mehr added that Safa'ie had also held the post of ports and maritime director general of Hormozgan province in southern Iran.
Behbahani took the helm in January 2012 replacing industry veteran Mohammad Souri, who had been NITC's boss for 26 years.
Behbahani, formerly Iran's road and transportation minister told Reuters in Feb. 2012 he had been picked for his experience and denied he was a political appointee.
Ahmadinejad, whose second and final term in office ends in June, has increasingly fallen foul of more conservative elements within Iran's establishment and has faced political opposition over his economic policies.
Since the last election, the economy has suffered from sanctions. Prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel have risen as subsidies have been cut, while the oil exports that make up the bulk of Iran's income have fallen dramatically.
"The political fight is not just about the presidency," said Scott Lucas, a specialist on Iran at Birmingham University.
"People are scrambling to get control of key ministries and key agencies right now and that includes I suspect NITC."
The EU has imposed an outright ban on ship insurance provision. The exit from Iran of top providers of ship certification, vital for ports access, and the de-flagging from international registries of vessels have added to operational challenges for Iranian shipping firms like NITC.
In another blow to Iran, the U.S. last week imposed sanctions on NITC's Iranian ship insurer Kish P&I and its reinsurer Bimeh Markazi-Central Insurance of Iran.
"NITC was a well run company but it has increasingly become a puppet in a bigger oil game now," a ship industry source said. "As the shutters have closed, less is really known about what is happening inside NITC now."
Reuters reported last month that Iran was using old tankers operated by foreign middlemen to help transport its crude. Western sources had told Reuters NITC was involved in ship-to-ship transfers of Iranian oil with the foreign vessels. Last week Washington imposed financial sanctions on a Greek businessman it said secretly operated the shipping network on behalf of Tehran.
"This covert trade shows the lengths Iran is having to go to in order to get their oil out. They will find a way and that puts NITC once again in centre stage," the ship industry source said.
By Jonathan Saul --Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; editing by James Jukwey (C) Reuters 2013.