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‘Ghost armada’ tankers go dark to ship sanctioned Iranian oil

Oil tanker
Oil tanker. International shipping rules require vessels to keep their transponders on at all times
  • Industry analysts say more oil is being moved this way than ever before
  • Tanker captains are flouting international shipping rules
  • The cargos are heading ‘primarily to China’

Empty oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf switch off their transponders and “vanish”, only to reappear later full of sanctioned Iranian oil. These vessels are the so-called “ghost armada” supplying Asian markets – and their number and cargos have increased in the past year, industry experts have told AGBI.

The practice began when Donald Trump reintroduced sanctions on Iranian oil in November 2018 and continues under his successor, President Joe Biden, whose efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal have so far been unsuccessful.

International shipping rules are being contravened as well as US sanctions – vessels are required to keep their transponders on at all times.

“Yes, it is still taking place,” Sudharsan Sarathy, lead oil analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at Refinitiv, told AGBI. “Ships do come [into the Arabian Gulf], they suddenly lose their signal – their transponders don’t work, or they’ve been turned off – and then after a while we again spot the vessel either when it has left the region or when it has reached another region, mostly in Asia.” 

Refinitiv monitors global tanker movements and Dubai-based Sarathy said the volume of Iranian cargo exported in this manner had increased over the past year.

“The export quantities have increased towards the end of last year and early this year,” he said. “Between April of last year and February 2022, the volumes have gone up… the variance has been quite significant.

“We’ve seen some months go as low as 150,000-160,000 [per day], which was the case last April [2021]. And then there have been some months where it has gone as high as 330,000 to 350,000 [barrels per day], which is in February. It keeps varying.”

Sam Ingles, a London-based senior data analyst at Vortexa, which also tracks tanker movements, told AGBI its records had highlighted tankers in the Middle East manipulating their Automated Identification System (AIS) to circumvent sanctions.

“AIS signals being intentionally deactivated in the Middle East is something we’ve observed constantly since the Iranian sanctions were first imposed. The vast majority of Iranian cargos have been lifted in this way ever since, regardless of US presidential changes. The methods used to hide these Iranian exports have evolved over the years, but are still heavily reliant on AIS manipulation of some kind,” Ingles said.

“Although the rising oil price and Russian sanctions have led to renewed Iranian sanction deliberations, the practice of ‘going dark’ will remain constant until the sanctions are lifted.

“These Iranian cargos will continue to move primarily to China and provide no respite to European markets for the foreseeable.”

The number of ships in the ‘ghost armada’ has also risen significantly, according to a New York-based advocacy group called United Against Nuclear Iran. In November 2020, it identified 70 ships involved in this practice. Last month, it said the number had risen to around 196.

Sarathy believes the majority of the tankers operating in this manner are part of the Iranian fleet. “It’s a complex network of holding companies and it’s really tough to find the eventual nationality of the ownership. But mostly we’ve seen traditional Iranian oil tankers which have done the ferrying of the oil,” he said.

Although US authorities have tried to prevent this kind of activity by seizing ships found to contain sanctioned Iranian oil, the Tehran government continues to benefit, especially when oil prices continue to rise as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Central Bank of Iran issued statistics at the start of February suggesting it had made $18.6 billion in oil sales in the previous six months, according to the Associated Press. This compared to $8.5 billion for the same period a year earlier.

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