The great flag exodus: Where did Iran-linked ships deflagged by Panama go?
Panama cancelled 125 vessel registrations between 2019-2020 due to alleged ‘links with Iran and terrorism’
Lloyd’s List analysis shows that vessels deflagged by the Panama Maritime Authority between 2019-2020 mostly reflagged with Iran, the Cook Islands and Comoros in the aftermath of their cancellations. However, many have reflagged since, with Comoros now flagging just one ship from the ejected fleet
WHEN Panama sought to defend itself last month against allegations that it was helping Iran skirt US sanctions, its maritime regulator said it deflagged more than 130 vessels for alleged links to Iran and terrorism.
Citing its “close relationship” with US authorities and robust mechanisms for dealing with sanctions, the Panama Maritime Authority, known as AMP, revealed that it had cancelled 136 ships with proven “direct links” to the National Iranian Oil Co, although it did not disclose the time span over which these cancellations occurred.
A Lloyd’s List analysis based on AMP data has now confirmed that 125 cancellations occurred between 2019-2020, with another 13 cancellations taking place between 2013-2015. However, no ships are believed to have been removed from Panama’s flag for links to Iran since 2020.
Although the AMP has cancelled 125 vessel registrations over the two-year period, Rafael Cigarruista, general director of Merchant Marine, told Lloyd’s List that he does not know of any vessels deflagged by Panama since 2020 for links to Iran.
However, he said that Panama has “sanctioned a lot of vessels, deflagged [a] few more due to [unsafe shipping practices like turning off automatic identification system transponders and spoofing], and other reasons.”
The cancelled vessels, meanwhile, have been re-flagged elsewhere, with Iran, the Cook Islands and Comoros the most popular next destinations for vessels cancelled by Panama, although many ships have reflagged since.
Of the vessels deflagged by Panama, 57 reflagged with Iran — nearly all whom are beneficially owned by its government — Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows.
The Cook Islands and Comoros accommodated 14 and nine ships, respectively, although only one ship remains flagged with Comoros, with Cameroon now being the second-largest registry for the deflagged fleet, with 10 ships flying its flag.
Crude carriers accounted for more than half of the cancellations, with 46 very large crude carriers losing their registration, comprising about 39% of the deflagged fleet.
Excluding recycled ships, the fleet averaged 19.75 years of age, with VLCCs averaging a little over 17 years of age.
Of the vessels deflagged by Panama during those years, 59 are currently sanctioned; 55 are flagged by Iran, one by Tanzania, one by Cameroon, and the flag for the remaining two are unknown, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data.
One sanctioned-and-deflagged very large crude carrier that falsely claimed to be flagged by Tanzania, Penny H (IMO: 9102239), has since been recycled.
AMP made headlines last month when it stated that it had cancelled 136 registrations for vessels with proven links to the National Iranian Oil Co.
The claim garnered much media attention and even earned a dismissive rebuke from Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organisation on the state-owned Iran Press TV.
In its statement, AMP did not specify over what timeframe it cancelled the 136 ships, and while it has since amended the statement and omitted the part about deflagging ships tied to Iran, Mr Cigarruista told Lloyd’s List that despite the amendments, “the actions remain the same”. He added that the registration cancellations were completed between 2019-2020.
The list of 138 registration cancellations contained 13 vessels that were cancelled between 2013-2015, seven of which have been deflagged again between 2019-2020. Two vessels were deflagged twice berween 2019-2020.
In total, 129 different vessels were on the list, 118 of which saw their registration cancelled between 2019-2020. Eleven of the ships have since been recycled, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data.
The reimposition of sanctions on Iran’s oil sector in 2018 gave rise to the so-called dark fleet engaged in shipping Iranian oil, using a variety of tactics to obfuscate the origin of its cargo.
Many of these ships switch their flags and names frequently to fly under the radar, often choosing flag registries that offer little scrutiny and have limited compliance capabilities or desire to conduct due diligence.
AMP’s statement was issued in response to a scathing opinion piece in the Washington Post by former Florida governor and current United Against Nuclear Iran advisory board member Jeb Bush, who accused Panama of knowingly flagging ships that have skirted US sanctions on Iran.
He claimed that despite being presented with evidence by UANI of more than 130 vessels being involved in the illicit trade since 2020, Panama had deflagged just 18 of them.
Additional reporting by Bridget Diakun