U.S. Highlights Evasion Tactics by Sanctioning Tanker in Iranian Oil Trade

illegal STS Iranian oil
Authorities in Southeast Asia have discovered numerous examples of illegal STS happening in the region (Bakamla file photo)

Published Mar 18, 2024 4:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Department of the Treasury continues to target vessels and the companies trading in Iranian oil in efforts to disrupt the flow of money which they contend is also being used to fund the activities of the Houthi in Yemen. In the latest action announced on March 15, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is highlighting the level of deception undertaken by the tankers to hide their actions.

The action targets a Marshall Islands-registered shipping company known as Vishnu and its vessel, the Lady Sofia. The ultimate ownership and management of the tanker is in India with the U.S. officials reporting it has been involved with illicit shipments to the People’s Republic of China in support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force and Houthi financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal, who is sanctioned under U.S. counterterrorism authorities.

The 160,000 dwt tanker was built in 2001 and has been operating for its Indian owners while registered in Panama since 2021. U.S. officials highlighted that the tanker engaged in a ship-to-ship transfer with another Panama-registered tanker, the Mehle (150,000 dwt), which the U.S. listed in January 2024 for its involvement in the trade.

They are citing the Lady Sofia as spoofing its AIS signal to hide its true location during the transfer. The vessel was also using the false identity of a fictitious vessel called the Amor. The tanker incorrectly broadcasted its location as the South China Sea, while it was involved with the transfer off Singapore with the Mehle.

The Lady Sofia traveled in February 2024 to China to deliver the Iranian commodities it received from the Mehle on behalf of Sa’id al-Jamal. The Mehle was sanctioned on January 12, 2024, as property in which Cielo Maritime has an interest, for having materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, Sa’id al-Jamal.

“We remain committed to disrupting the IRGC-QF and the Houthis’ attempts to evade U.S. sanctions and fund additional terrorist attacks,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. “The United States will continue to target the key funding streams that threaten civilians and peaceful international trade.”

It is the latest in a series of actions by the U.S. sanctioning tankers involved in the trade. Last week, U.S. officials also confirmed that they had traveled to Panama to discuss the registry and called for Panama to remove tankers violating sanctions in the Iranian oil trade to be removed from the registry.