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Iran may be smuggling oil to Syria using Lebanese ships: report

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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An aerial view of the port of Beirut. A recent report suggests that two Lebanese tankers have been smuggling Iranian oil to Syria. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese officials are calling on the government to take action to enforce US sanctions on Iran in light of a recent report that suggests two Lebanese tankers have been smuggling Iranian oil to Syria.

According to international tanker-tracking website TankerTrackers.com, Lebanese commercial records and traceability data for ships showed two companies owned and operated oil tankers transporting Iranian crude oil secretly in the Mediterranean to Syria, Asharq Al-Awsat reported August 14th.

The report accused the Sandro and Jasmine tankers of turning off their transponders when they reached the Syrian coast to avoid detection en route to their destination.

Sandro turned off its transponder near Cyprus, effectively disappearing from the maritime map, the report said, while Jasmine also disappeared from radars while in the Mediterranean.

According to an August 11th report in The National, Iran regularly uses "ghost ships" -- tankers that have turned off their transponders to obscure their movements -- to carry out ship-to-ship transfers of oil.

This is done to evade detection in light of US sanctions on Iran and Syria, the report said, adding that according to TankerTrackers.com, approximately 500,000 barrels of crude oil have been delivered by ship to the Sandro.

Levant Centre for Strategic Affairs director Sami Nader called on the Lebanese government to "put an end to practices aimed at circumventing US sanctions".

Meanwhile, Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumjian said the government is "doing its utmost to put an end to any activities that violate international laws and the US sanctions imposed on Iran".

"There is no doubt that the relevant ministries and institutions are following up on the report on the two oil tankers out of their commitment to abide by US sanctions on Iran," he told Al-Mashareq.

"We do not seek to jeopardize Lebanon's sovereignty and economy by the actions of certain individuals or companies violating the sanctions," he said.

Lebanon will uphold international law

If the tankers are implicated in smuggling Iranian oil, the investigation's results will be "entered in full detail" into the list maintained by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said economist Violette Ghazal al-Balaa.

This would lead to their full international exclusion, she told Al-Mashareq, which would force them "to conduct their activities on the nascent black market".

Institutions and individuals who contravene or attempt to contravene US sanctions are "well-known", however, she added, noting that the US tracks "any suspicious activity in the region related to oil smuggling".

"Iran is resisting the US sanctions, which have adversely affected its economy, and is seeking to open trade outlets across Europe and the Middle East, using Hizbullah and its affiliated institutions and businessmen as cover," she said.

It seeks to leverage their access to the global economic system, she added.

If the suspicions about the two tankers turn out to be justified, Iran will be in breach of US sanctions, Lebanese lawyer Lucien Aoun told Al-Mashareq.

Commercial ships and fishing vessels in territorial waters are subject to international laws and treaties, he said, and must abide by their provisions, including those pertaining to the smuggling of arms and contraband.

"Lebanon has pledged to implement the laws in force and in effect ratified by the US at the international level," he said, adding that Lebanese nationals and institutions are banned from facilitating the transport of oil from Iran.

Lebanon "has official records of all the Lebanese or foreign-owned ships that had docked in its ports in the past", he said, and will turn these records over if necessary, as it has agreed to comply with US sanctions.

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