Iran Threatens Tankers as Panama Denies Registering Iranian-Owned Vessels

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Iran is renewing its threats against tankers and retaliation for actions by the United States to “interfere” with the transportation of Iranian oil. The latest statements came in response to the U.S.’s move in February to seize another shipment of 500,000 barrels of Iranian fuel oil valued at over $25 million as well as efforts by the U.S. calling on Panama to remove from its registry ships aiding Iran’s violation of sanctions.

The Biden administration has been moving to increase the pressure on Iran in part due to the reports that Iran is using oil sales to help fund the Houthi in Yemen. Last year, the U.S. was successful in seizing the oil cargo from the tanker Suez Rajan and selling it for $74 million. Now, the U.S. is in court in a new action started in February 2024 to seize the cargo aboard the tanker Abyss (105,000 dwt tanker registered in Palau) again using the civil forfeiture laws. The U.S. used the same approach in seven previous seizures in 2020 and 2021 before the Suez Rajan taking control of more than 5.3 million barrels of petroleum products valued at $294 million.  

Iranian media is today quoting Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the Navy of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), saying “If our oil and tankers are seized anywhere in the world, we will respond in kind… the era of foreign exploitation of Iranian resources with impunity has come to an end.” 

They specifically cited the new case targeting the tanker Abyss. According to the reports, the U.S. moved against the tanker after locating it in the Yellow Sea between China and South Korea. 

In recent weeks, the U.S. has listed a series of tankers, mostly registered in Panama, sanctioning their operators for the illegal trade in Iranian oil. At the same time, Abram Paley, the U.S.’s Deputy Special Envoy for Iran, traveled to Panama to meet with the Panama Maritime Authority. He highlighted that they were asking Panama to remove tankers from its registry that are involved in the Iranian oil trade.

“The possibility of Panamanian-flagged ships were used to transport Iranian oil was among the issues addressed in the meeting,” the AMP acknowledged in a statement issued yesterday. They responded by asserting, “However, confirming that up to date there are no ships owned by Iranian nationals within the Panamanian Registry, as far as there is awareness.”

Further, they said that there is a protocol developed in 2020 by the governments of Panama and the United States to treat these issues. “Up to this date, no formal communication has been received for a cancellation request for ships under the Panamanian registry,” they asserted.

The authority has previously discussed the efforts of the new regime to increase the enforcement of regulations and clean the registry. They report that since 2019, a total of 863 ships have had their registry canceled, with 706 being by action of their office and only 157 due to annulment or sale.

They note that the U.S.’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, which oversees the sanctions, has listed 41 ships in the Panamanian registry. The AMP reports 24 ships had been canceled as of 2023 when it asked OFAC to update its website and a further six have been canceled since then. The remaining 11 ships they report are in a cancellation process.

The PMA emphasized the strong cooperation between Panama and the United States while saying the representatives expressed confidence that “Panama is focused in its responsibilities as a responsible ship registry.”

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