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US senators ask Panama to investigate tankers trading oil to Iran

Photo: Luis Gonzalez - Unsplash Panama Flag flying in the wind
A group of 22 US senators is applying pressure to the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP) to look into vessels trading oil from Iran.

Representing Twenty other US Republican and Democratic senators, US senators Bob Casey and Marco Rubio have sent a letter dated January 11 to the AMP’s Department of Resolutions and Inquiries to ask the entity to investigate 189 Panama-flagged vessels. The ships in question represent around 50% of the 383 "ghost fleet" vessels identified by non-profit organisation United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) as dedicated to the transfer of oil from Iran, despite widespread US sanctions against the nation and its oil industry in particular. 

The senators say that no other flag represents more than 5% of the identified ghost fleet vessels, and that AMP has de-flagged just 28 of the 217 vessels of concern. 

“We are concerned that the Panama Maritime Authority is not doing the necessary due diligence [for the flagging of these ships]... we are further concerned that the practices used to evade US sanctions on Iranian oil could also be used to evade US sanctions on Russian oil, contributing to that nation's abhorrent atrocities in Ukraine and elsewhere," the letter said.

“The United States has enacted a series of sanctions against the Iranian regime in response to and condemnation of Iran's serious human rights abuses and state sponsorship of terrorism. From supporting groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, backing the brutal Syrian regime, accelerating its nuclear, drone and ballistic missile programs, to killing hundreds and arresting thousands of its own people, in the violent suppression of internal protests…Iran consistently works in opposition to peace, stability, democracy, and shared American values ​​and interests throughout the Middle East,” the senators said.

“In recent years, Iran and its buyers have used a 'ghost fleet' of vessels that employ creative techniques to conceal the origin of Iranian oil, allowing Iran's oil revenues to recover. These mechanisms include transferring oil between tankers at sea, turning off GPS trackers before docking in Iran, repainting of vessels mid-voyage, 'flag hopping' between different national registries, and labelling oil as different types of fuel.

The senators said that the ghost fleet has enabled the export of hundreds of millions of barrels of Iranian oil in recent years. “We therefore request that you cooperate with the United States and conduct investigations into a significant number of ships registered in Panama which are alleged to transport Iranian oil in violation of U.S. sanctions.

In January 2023, the AMP issued a statement that between 2019 and 2022 it had de-flagged 678 vessels from its registry in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and in line with Panama's efforts to combat terrorist financing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. That statement was in response to another similar pronouncement by Republican Jeff Bush.