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To Evade U.S. Sanctions, Iranian Tankers 'Go Dark'


The Trump administration wants all sales of Iranian oil down to zero. It wants to force Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal and change its behavior in the Middle East. Most countries are complying with the U.S. demand, but Iranian crude is still finding its way onto the market. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There's been increased scrutiny of tankers going in and out of the Persian Gulf since the Trump administration told other countries to stop buying Iranian oil in early May. Reid I'Anson, a global energy economist at Kpler, a data intelligence company, says analysts are closely watching for movement of Iranian crude, using satellite imagery and what's known as AIS signaling from transponders on the vessels.

REID I'ANSON: AIS signaling is basically an automatic transmission that comes from every vessel in the world. Obviously, this is to ensure that vessels are not colliding with one another.

NORTHAM: I'Anson says AIS will pinpoint the location of a ship if it's switched on.

I'ANSON: The problem is that the NIOC, which is the National Iranian Oil Company, has purposely begun turning off AIS signals on their own ships.

NORTHAM: This is known as going dark, says Richard Meade, the editor of Lloyd's List, a U.K.-based shipping intelligence service. He says it's an effective method for an Iranian tanker to hide transfers of oil.

RICHARD MEADE: It will effectively go dark, switch off all comms, just at the point that it comes into the area of another ship. It then loads the cargo from one ship to another ship, lo and behold, the satellite signals go back on, both ships depart either way, and crude that was previously Iranian is no longer Iranian as far as the papers are concerned.

NORTHAM: Jim Burkhard, the head of oil market research at IHS Markit, a global information and analytics firm, says there are other ways to covertly move Iranian oil.

JIM BURKHARD: You'd also have trans shipments via another country where oil makes its way to, say, Malaysia and then it's re-exported to China.

NORTHAM: China has been Iran's biggest customer, and while other countries have stopped buying fearing crippling U.S. sanctions, Burkhard estimates China is still buying at least 200,000 barrels of Iranian crude a day - well under half the amount it imported last year. Burkhard says China also is sending a message to the U.S.

BURKHARD: There's plenty of oil in the world oil market today. There are other options besides buying Iranian crude oil. But this has to go with how the world operates. And China has repeatedly said that it does not appreciate, does not like, does not want to follow these unilateral U.S. sanctions.

NORTHAM: I'Anson with Kpler says China also has long-term investments in Iran's oil industry and is likely getting a good price on its crude. I'Anson says China has become more brazen about shipments. He says there have been at least two Iranian tankers, the Salina and the Horse, that offloaded crude at a Chinese port more than a month after the White House said it would not offer any waivers for Iranian oil.

I'ANSON: We believe the Salina discharged around a million barrels of crude on June 20 and the Horse discharged another give or take 2 million barrels of crude just a few days later. Both of these vessels loaded after sanctions waivers expired in early May.

NORTHAM: I'Anson says his sense is that more Iranian oil will continue to flow towards China even as the U.S. sanctions continue to bite. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG, "FLASHING LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.