Tanzania must stop ‘reflagging’ Iranian oil tankers or it will face the threat of US sanctions and damage its ties with Washington, a US lawmaker warned on Friday.
The warning by the US lawmaker comes just a day after the Zanzibar government on Friday defended its move to register Iranian oil tankers, saying it didn’t break any laws as claimed by a section of the international media early this week. Howard Berman, the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, accused Tanzania of reflagging at least six, and possibly as many at 10, tankers owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company.
"This action by your government has the effect of assisting the Iranian regime in evading US and EU sanctions and generating additional revenues for its nuclear enrichment and weapons research programme and its support for international terrorism," Berman said in a letter to President Jakaya Kikwete that was obtained by Reuters.
Berman said if the tankers were allowed to continue sailing under the Tanzanian flag, Tanzania could face the sanctions that President Barack Obama signed into law.
He said Congress would also have "no choice" but to consider whether to continue the range of bilateral US programmes with Tanzania.
Officials at Tanzania's embassy in Washington were not immediately available to comment on Berman's letter.
The sanctions, along with similar action by the European Union, are aimed at pressuring Iran to curb its nuclear programme, which the West believes aims to develop nuclear weapons but which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
The United States gave China a six-month reprieve from Iran financial sanctions on Thursday. The Obama administration has now spared all 20 of Iran's major oil buyers from its unilateral sanctions, rewarding them for cutting purchases of Iranian oil.
Zanzibar Infrastructure and Communication minister Hamad Masoud Hamad on Friday refuted reports that the Isles government had registered Iranian oil tankers as reported by Bloomberg News Agency early this week.
The minister admitted however that the said Iranian oil tankers were previously registered in Cyprus and Malta islands.
Briefing the House of Representatives, Hamad said the registered oil tankers were not covered by international sanctions imposed on Iranian ships by the European Union and the United States. The minister stated that, according to the Zanzibar Marine Transport AuthorityAct number 3 of 2009, and the Zanzibar Marine Transport Act of 2006, the Isles government had full autonomy to register international ships.
According to the minister, Zanzibar entered into an agreement with a Dubai-based company, Philtex Ltd, to act as its agent in the registration of all international ships, known in the shipping industry as ‘open registry’. The minister added that open registry had been in effect in the Isles since 2009, whereby a number of international cargo ships, oil tankers and passenger vessels were registered in Zanzibar.
Contrary to the media reports, the minister said, the vessels claimed to belong to Iranian authorities were in fact owned by British nationals living in the Virgin Islands and the Seychelles. The minister warned against interference by the union government in the matter as promised by his counterpart, Dr Harrison Mwakyembe, saying marine transport in Zanzibar wasn’t a union affair.
Citing relations between Iran and Zanzibar, the minister said the two countries had strong ties, adding that that was why Iran’s vice-president recently visited the Indian Ocean archipelago to discuss how to strengthen the relations. He warned that Zanzibar wasn’t ready to be dragged into the ongoing conflicts between Iran and Western countries.
Speaking about the Iranian tanker flying the Tanzanian flag, the minister said since Zanzibar was part of the union, there was nothing wrong for vessels registered in the Isles to fly the union flag. «But if the Tanzanian government won’t feel comfortable with the tankers flying the union flag we are ready to let them fly the Zanzibar flag. This is no big deal and it should not be blown out of proportion, the minister said.
On Monday, Bloomberg News Agency reported that NITC, an oil-tanker company owned by Iranian pension funds, renamed at least 10 of its vessels and switched them to flying the Tanzanian flag amid increasing curbs on transactions with the Persian Gulf nation.
NITC renamed five large crude oil carriers, each with a capacity of holding about 2 million barrels of oil, and five Suezmaxes, hauling 1 million barrels each, according to the Equasis shipping database maintained by the European Commission, Bloomberg reported.
Ownership was switched from NITC to new companies operating from the same address in Tehran and NITC remains the operator, the data show. All the ships were previously registered in Malta or Cyprus.
Additional report by Mwinyi Sadalla in Zanzibar.