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Special Report: Before We Thank Iran’s Tanker Fleet…

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1/31/2012 @ 4:02PM

With sanctions currently the U.S. tool of choice for thwarting Iran’s terror networks and nuclear ambitions, the good news is that U.S. lawmakers are crafting new measures to cast a wider net. Let’s hope that this time they don’t leave a hole big enough for an Iranian oil tanker to sail right through.

Make that a fleet of oil tankers. Despite the many sanctions now targeting Iran’s regime,  and bedeviling Iran’s national merchant fleet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), Iran’s main tanker fleet has so far remained exempt.

If the aim is to contain and pressure Iran’s regime, this is no small omission. Iran’s main tanker fleet is owned by a company called NITC, formerly the National Iranian Tanker Company. Headquartered in Tehran, NITC ranks as the world’s fourth largest operator of very large crude carriers, according to a leading London-based shipping information service, Lloyd’s List, which reports that last year NITC was responsible for transporting 53 million tons of crude oil.

Currently, NITC’s web site lists a fleet of 39 tankers, which it uses to carry Iranian oil, and also charters out on the international market. NITC serves Iran not only as a vehicle for moving petroleum, but for enjoying business access and networking opportunities. In its chartering activities, NITC says it aims, among other things, to “build close relationships with reputable charters and shipbroking firms,” and call at “a wide variety of global ports and terminals.” NITC describes itself on its web site as employing more than 3,000 staff, including 2,500 seafaring personnel, of whom about 85% are Iranian nationals.

NITC tankers call freely at ports from Europe to the Far East. Within the past five weeks, for instance, an NITC tanker, the Sepid, has called at the Greek port of Piraeus; two more NITC tankers, the Saveh and the Sarvestan, have called at the Dutch port of Rotterdam, where NITC keeps an office.

This week, NITC top management appears to be going through an upheaval. On Tuesday, news broke that NITC’s longtime chairman and managing director, Mohammad Souri, had suddenly stepped down after 26 years at the helm. Reuters reports that he sent out a letter, saying he has retired, but he will continue to serve NITC as an “adviser and supporter.” The new head of NITC will be a former Iranian transportation minister, Hamid Behbahani, who has recently been serving as a transportation adviser to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There is speculation in the shipping press that this shuffle at NITC may be related to the looming possibility of U.S. sanctions on the company. The Senate Banking Committee has been considering whether to include NITC in new sanctions legislation due for a vote this Thursday.

NITC officials have been protesting that it makes no sense for the U.S. to sanction them. They say that while NITC was once owned by Iran’s state oil company, NITC was privatized 12 years ago and is “not a state company,” as NITC’s commercial director, Habibolah Seyedan told Reuters last week. He also said that NITC has no links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC. Since the U.S. blacklisted the IRGC in 2007 for its role in Iran’s proliferation activities, both U.S. and European Union sanctions authorities have targeted a growing number of IRGC-related entities linked to Iran’s terror and proliferation networks.

NITC officials have been talking up their professionalism, good safety record, multi-billion dollar investments in their fleet and ties within the global oil and shipping industries. NITC’s newly retired chairman, Mohammad Souri, has for years been racking up international shipping awards. Last December, at a ceremony in Dubai, Lloyd’s List named Souri its Tanker Operator of the Year, for the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent. In 2010, a U.K.-based maritime networking firm, Seatrade, honored Souri in London as its Personality of the Year. After that ceremony, Souri gave an interview to a shipping information service, IHS Fairplay, in which he said, “We are a tanker company, transporting energy for people around the world; we should be thanked, rather than having sanctions.”

Before U.S. lawmakers rush to thank NITC, however, they might want to ask just how many degrees of separation actually distance NITC and its officials from Iran’s regime and the IRGC.

Congressional investigators could start with a closer look at NITC’s ex-chairman, now slated to be its supporter and adviser, Mohammad Souri. Fluent in English, well-traveled and familiar with America and its ways, Souri for more than a quarter of a century has been the human face of NITC. But however great his official distance from the Tehran regime and IRGC, Souri has long occupied a position of trust within the system they have created. In transporting Iran’s oil, NITC plays an important part in the oil supply chain that sustains the Tehran regime and fuels an Iranian economic-political-military complex in which the IRGC plays an increasingly pervasive part.

Educated initially in Iran, Souri then studied in the U.S. in the late 1970s, during the final years of the Shah. While running an international freight company registered in 1976 in New York, he earned a Batchelor’s of Science degree from Howard University, in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1979. That was the year Ayatollah Khomeini took power with Iran’s Islamic revolution. That same year, Souri returned to Iran, and before the year was over he had landed a post as a deputy minister in the new Islamic government’s Ministry of Commerce. Exact dates vary from one version of Souri’s biography to the next, but within a mere three years, he had become chairman and managing director of Iran’s  IRISL merchant fleet.

By 1986, the Islamic government had moved Souri to what was arguably an even more important job, as chairman and managing director of NITC, then a subsidiary of the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). That was during the 1984-1988 Iran-Iraq tanker war, in which Iran’s tanker fleet operated in close coordination with both Iran’s regular navy and the IRGC’s parallel navy — which was then developing the kind of speedboat guerrilla tactics Iran uses today to harass U.S. naval ships in the Gulf.

In 2000, Iran’s government “privatized” the NITC, transferring its ownership from the state oil company, NIOC, to a number of Iranian pension funds. Congressional investigators might want to explore the extent to which that arrangement actually qualifies as a private sector deal. In a 2008 confidential U.S. diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks, an American official writing about NITC noted that “67% of the company’s equity is controlled by the Iranian state employee and oil industry employee retirement funds.”

Souri stayed on as head of NITC, resigning a directorship he had held for years on the NIOC board. But under his chairmanship, the NITC board has looked a lot like a NIOC alumni club. Two of the other six directors listed on the NITC web site are former senior officials of NIOC. A third is a former official of the London office of a Tehran-based entity called Kala Naft, which the U.S. government identified in 2010 as wholly owned by NIOC. Last year, when NITC was less shy about its relationship with state-owned NIOC, its web site included a list of its “missions.” Among them were: “Providing marine services to NIOC oil rigs and offshore platforms…Hire of required vessels to International Markets for NIOC…Chartering new vessels on behalf of NIOC affiliated companies.”

NIOC itself, which U.S. lawmakers have also been considering as a sanctions target, is supervised by Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum. Since last summer, the man heading that ministry has been Rostam Qasemi, an IRGC general. Qasemi was blacklisted in 2010 by both the U.S. Treasury and the European Union for serving as head of a huge  IRGC business conglomerate, Khatam al-Anbiya.

Then there’s the issue of banking. In an interview last January with Bloomberg news service,  NITC’s area manager in the United Arab Emirates, Rahmat Ghareh, mentioned that in the UAE, NITC for its financial transactions was using a branch of Iran’s Bank Saderat. That might be of interest to U.S. lawmakers, because in 2007 the U.S, government blacklisted Bank Saderat “for providing services to terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah.”

If, as reported, former transportation minister Behbahani is now taking the NIOC helm, is this picture likely to improve? Behbahani is a longtime ally of Ahmadinejad, and by some accounts served years ago as Ahmadinejad’s thesis adviser. In 2009, following the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators protesting Ahmadinejad’s rigged reelection, Ahmadinejad appointed Behbahani as transportation minister. On Behbahani’s watch, the transportation ministry awarded a road-building contract worth billions to the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya, the same outfit that has been headed by current oil minister Qasemi.

A year ago, Iran’s parliament impeached Behbahani as transportation minister, amid charges of inefficiency, and following major airplane and train accidents on his watch. Ahmadinejad denounced the impeachment as “illegal,” and made Behbahani his transportation adviser. In that role, Behbahani accompanied Ahmadinejad on a trip this January to see Iran’s pals in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba and Venezuela –  an excursion that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dubbed a “Tour of Tyrants.”

Is there anything in all this that might warrant sanctions on NITC? Maybe lawmakers can take their pick.

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