An often-renamed fleet serves Iran’s campaign to skirt sanctions

Many strategies in use as UN is poised for vote

OVERSEEING SHIP BLACKLIST 'We are dealing with people who are as smart as we are,' said Stuart A. Levey, the under secretary of Treasury. OVERSEEING SHIP BLACKLIST
"We are dealing with people who are as smart as we are," said Stuart A. Levey, the under secretary of Treasury.
By Jo Becker
New York Times / June 8, 2010

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NEW YORK — On Jan. 24, 2009, a rusting freighter flying a Hong Kong flag dropped anchor in the South African port of Durban. The stop was not on the ship’s customary route, and it stayed only an hour, just long enough to pick up its clandestine cargo: a Bladerunner 51 speedboat that could be armed with torpedoes and used as a fast-attack craft in the Persian Gulf.

The name painted on the ship’s side as it left Durban and made for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas was the Diplomat, and its papers showed that it was owned by a company called Starry Shine Ltd. Both the name and provenance were of recent vintage. Six months earlier, the Diplomat had been the Iran Mufateh, part of a fleet owned by the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, known as Irisl.

Within months of the Durban episode, the US government put out word that Irisl had renamed the ship and set up Starry Shine to evade American export controls aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining military-use technology like the Bladerunner 51.

By that time, the freighter had yet another name: the Amplify. Last spotted by an electronic tracking system this April in Karachi, the Amplify was under new management and had a mysterious new owner. But only on paper.

The Mufateh-Diplomat-Amplify is part of a great disappearing act in which Irisl, under pressure from American and other sanctions, has been obscuring the true ownership of its vessels in a web of shell companies stretching across Europe and Asia, a New York Times examination of Irisl’s actions shows.

Formed mostly after the United States blacklisted Irisl and all of its ships in 2008, as confederates of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, the corporations often have English names like System Wise and Great Method, which seem to mock American resolve.

Now, as Iran continues to defy international calls to rein in its nuclear ambitions, the UN Security Council is poised to vote, as soon as this week, on sanctions of its own. Several provisions focus on Irisl, which has been determined by the UN to have been involved in a plot to smuggle weapons, in violation of an international embargo that prohibits Iran from exporting arms.

But The Times’ examination shows how Iran has used a succession of strategems — changing not just ships’ flags and names but their owners, operators, and managers, too — to stay one step ahead of such sanctions.

“We are dealing with people who are as smart as we are, and, of course, they can read our list,’’ said Stuart A. Levey, the undersecretary of the Treasury who oversees the sanctions effort and the blacklist of Irisl and its fleet.

That blacklist, The Times found, simply has not kept up.

Of the 123 Irisl ships listed, only 46 are still clearly owned by Irisl or its US listed subsidiaries, according to an analysis of data from IHS Fairplay, formerly Lloyd’s Register-Fairplay, based in Britain, which issues large merchant vessels their unique identifying numbers and tracks them over their lifetime. Four more were scuttled.