Iranian tanker reappears on AIS; shipping an unlikely target, say analysts

The re-appearance of a National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) very large crude carrier (VLCC) on AIS is being interpreted as a signal that recent tensions between Iran and the US will not affect the shipping industry, according to Dryad Maritime.

Iranian-flagged 320,000 dwt VLCC Stream, currently anchored off Khor Fakkan, Sharjah, UAE, according to IHS Markit’s AISLive ship tracking portal, was last shown calling at China’s Tianjin port on 20 June 2019 before its disappearance from AIS. The re-emergence of the vessel’s AIS signal “is widely seen as a signal by Iran that it does not intend to interfere with operations through the Strait of Hormuz”, Dryad indicated, in reference to an update from TankerTrackers.com.

“More and more countries are positioning navy ships in the region to protect their commercial ships, with Japan being one of the recent examples,” said Fotios Katsoulas, liquid bulk, Commodities at Sea at IHS Markit Maritime & Trade. “[The Strait of Hormuz trade] provides around 75% of Japan’s imports and more than a third of China’s imports of crude oil. Iranian tankers have been avoiding sending signals very frequently in 2019, which as a result caused some vessels to re-appear on the AIS system after long breaks”.

Vessels disappearing from AIS is normal when dealing with sanctioned or embargoed countries, Katsoulas explained. While Iran is under sanction by the US, it is not illegal for vessels from other countries to load oil at Kharg Island export terminal; however, tankers bound for the Far East routinely go missing in the Gulf – a July 2019 New York Times article cited the cases of SC Mercury, SC Brilliant, SC Neptune, SC Shantou, and Sino Energy 1, all Hong-Kong flagged vessels, to name a few.

“There are still many vessels disappearing, with many ships believed to be involved in carrying Venezuelan barrels only starting to send signals when they approach the African coast. They then typically proceed their journey to the Far East,” said Katsoulas. “Some of these assets did carry both Venezuelan and then Iranian barrels in 2019.”

The Strait of Hormuz represents a strategically advantageous route for Iran, allowing the country to cultivate an ‘asymmetrical’ navy comprising fast boats and submarines. Military analysts point out that the narrow strait would force any naval vessels to travel down a relatively predictable path; meanwhile, it is a vital trade artery, with about 17 million barrels of crude oil carried through it per day. However, “Iran benefits from the region’s operations returning to normal activity,” Katsoulas said.

“Iranian officials have only referred to plans that would target the US, as it happened with the bases in Iraq,” he added. “Even if the shipping industry remains concerned about future risks in operations through the Strait of Hormuz, which has pushed insurance costs to historical highs, optimism develops that the region isn’t included in Iran’s plans, at least for now.”