* NITC argues not a government entity
* Sanctions pressure on Iran gathers pace
By Jonathan Saul
LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) - New names for Iran's oil tankers
are part of its national tanker company NITC's defence against
tighter United States sanctions which target it, the company
NITC ships are taking to the seas with colourful new
identities, swapping Farsi names for those that cover a range of
Freedom, Truth, Honesty, Justice and Leadership should
resonate nobly in international waters; Brawny, Valor and Mars
carry with them a hint of steel.
"The change of flags of the fleet was a transparent and
pre-emptive action to avoid breaching the new sanction law which
was intended to be implemented in the concerned flag state," the
National Iranian Tanker Company said in a statement.
The ruse, in a cat-and-mouse game with Washington and
Brussels over sanctions against its nuclear programme, is
unlikely to work.
"Anyone who is in the business is going to know the real
identity of a specific vessel and renaming is not going to fool
anyone," a former oil tanker captain said. A tanker can still be
tracked by its unique identification number.
Another ship industry source said: "It seems more of a
subconscious move to gently steer people away from the Iranian
identity of the ship. It's at best making it less obvious that
NITC has also reflagged most of its tankers, swapping Malta
and Cyprus flags for those of Tanzania and the tiny South
Pacific island of Tuvalu.
"We therefore hereby strongly refute any allegation of being
a governmental entity or a property of the government of Iran
and reiterate that the vessels within the fleet have always been
operated legally and in accordance to the applicable national
international laws and regulations," NITC said.
The U.S. Congress passed new measures this week aimed at
further restricting Iran's oil revenues. The bill includes
requiring President Barack Obama to determine whether NITC has
links to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which would
lead to sanctions.
NITC has already been in the firing line and on July 12, the
U.S. Treasury identified 58 of its vessels and 27 of its
affiliates as extensions of the state, which would undermine
Iran's attempts to use renamed, disguised vessels to evade
sanctions, the department said.
A senior NITC official, who declined to be named, said the
group would challenge the sanctions, but did not elaborate.
"NITC has always been transparent in its activities and has
honoured international laws and treaties to their fullest," it
Founded in 1955, NITC went private in 2000. Its main
shareholders are three Iranian pension funds.
"Accordingly its beneficiaries are over 5 million retired
people," NITC said. "There is no single budget allocated to NITC
by the government and it is not a property of the government of
Nevertheless, there have been growing questions over who is
running NITC. In late January, Hamid Behbahani, formerly Iran's
road and transportation minister, took the helm.
Behbahani is a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and there has been speculation in the shipping industry that his
arrival was linked to moves by the Iranian president to entrench
his authority in strategic sectors, notably transportation and
Ahmadinejad's rivals impeached Behbahani for mismanagement
in February 2011.
"Having Behbahani there does not signal the type of
independence that NITC is seeking," the shipping industry source
Behbahani told Reuters in February 2012 that it was NITC's
board of directors who decided on the appointment of the
chairman and CEO, and believed he had the "required
qualifications as well as the capability".
TRACKING, TANZANIA AND TUVALU
As sanctions on Iran have gathered pace, including an EU
embargo on the Islamic Republic's oil, NITC is increasingly
playing a major role in transporting Iranian crude with the
tanker group having to adapt.
Earlier this year, tracking transponders on many NITC
vessels were switched off, making it harder to monitor ship
There is nothing to stop the renaming or re-flagging of a
vessel and specific regulations are at the discretion of
individual flag states.
Tanzania said earlier this month it was looking into the
reflagging of some NITC tankers to the Tanzanian flag, while
prominent U.S. lawmaker Howard Berman urged Tuvalu to stop
reflagging Iranian tankers and warned its government of the
risks of falling foul of U.S. sanctions.
Officials from Tuvalu, whose estimated population is under
15,000, could not be immediately reached for comment.
"It's not easy being NITC at the moment and they are trying
to do whatever they can to stay in business," another ship
industry source said. "It's a cat-and-mouse game and they cannot
continue the way they could even a couple of months ago, let
alone two years ago."
(Editing by William Hardy, Richard Mably)