“Oil from the Adrian Darya 1 has been offloaded in Syria, proving that Iran lied to the UK and Gibraltar. This terrorist oil will fund Assad’s war and Iran’s sectarian violence. EU members should condemn this action, uphold the rule of law, and hold Iran accountable,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
The Tweet accompanied surveillance pictures purporting to show the tanker transferring oil to another vessel called the Jasmine on October 2.
A second picture purported to show the Jasmine moored at an oil discharge area near the Baniyas oil refinery on the Syrian coast on October 4.
Oil from the #AdrianDarya1 has been offloaded in Syria, proving that Iran lied to the UK and Gibraltar. This terrorist oil will fund Assad’s war and Iran’s sectarian violence. EU members should condemn this action, uphold the rule of law, and hold Iran accountable. pic.twitter.com/4GPZpdYU8b
The Adrian Darya 1, then sailing under the name Grace 1, was seized by British forces in July on suspicion of delivering oil to Syria, which would have breached EU sanctions applicable in Gibraltar’s waters.
It was released by a court in Gibraltar in August following Iranian assurances that Syria was not the destination, but was reported to have off loaded its cargo of about two million barrels of crude oil at the Syrian port of Tartus in early September.
Iran had promised Gibraltar that the ship was not headed to Syria in order to secure its release from detention in Gibraltar two weeks previously.
It was not immediately clear if last month’s reports of an oil delivery were mistaken or if the claims made by Secretary Pompeo on Wednesday referred to a fresh transfer.
Europe and the United States have been divided over Iran policy since Donald Trump’s administration quit a deal, also backed by the EU, Russia, and China, designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions in 2018.
Since then the United States has pursued a “maximum pressure” policy of punishing sanctions in a bid to force Iran to accept tighter nuclear restrictions, end military support for armed groups like Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and cut its missile program.
European countries, including the UK, have resisted US pressure to follow suit and have attempted to persuade Iran to stick to its nuclear deal commitments.
An Iranian oil tanker detained in July over suspicions it was violating European Union sanctions by transporting oil to Syria has been pictured off the coast again, sparking concerns that the ship could be transferring cargo.
Satellite images released Thursday showed Iran’s Adrian Darya 1, formerly named the Grace 1, pictured the previous day alongside a smaller vessel, the Jasmine. The two ships can be seen tethered together by mooring lines while a crane is deployed on the starboard side of the tanker.
The scene and location of the ships have indicated that the tanker could be preparing to transfer its crude oil.
The Adrian Darya 1 was detained off the British overseas territory of Gibraltar in July while carrying $130 million in crude oil, on suspicion of breaking European Union sanctions by taking the oil to Syria. Gibraltar later released the tanker, after it said Iran promised the ship wouldn’t go to Syria.
But the vessel made its way toward the Syrian coast still.
The oil shipment website TankerTrackers.com said on Twitter on Tuesday that the Adrian Darya 1 was “postured in an STS (Ship-to-Ship) formation with a smaller Iranian-flagged Handymax (350K barrel capacity) tanker,” the Jasmine. It noted this was “not a confirmation of any oil transfer just yet. We’ll compare imagery later.” The image the website posted showed the two vessels off the coast of Syria.
However, the website said on Wednesday it was ending its public coverage of the Iranian tanker’s movements due to a tweet by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who used the image of the two tankers in a tweet of his own.
Pompeo tweeted that despite Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad “Zarif’s promise to the UK that the #AdrianDarya1 would not deliver oil to Syria, it is now transferring oil off the Syrian coast. Will the world hold Iran accountable if this oil is delivered to Syria?”
Despite Iran FM Zarif’s promise to the UK that the #AdrianDarya1 would not deliver oil to Syria, it is now transferring oil off the Syrian coast. Will the world hold Iran accountable if this oil is delivered to Syria? pic.twitter.com/z5Ra41n43u
Donald Trump has claimed America is ‘locked and loaded’ as it waits for confirmation Iran was was behind drone attacks on Saudi oil plants on Saturday, after Tehran warned America is was ‘ready for full-fledged war’.
The President tweeted on Sunday night: ‘Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!’
Attacks on two plants at the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry Saturday knocked out more than half of Saudi crude output, or five per cent of global supply.
Trump’s warning to Iran came after a senior Revolutionary Guard commander told the US that Iran was ‘ready for full-fledged war’.
Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!
Amirali Hajizadeh, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force, warned that US military bases were within range of Iranian missiles.
He told Tasnim news agency: ‘Everybody should know that all American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000km around Iran are within the range of our missiles.’
Shortly before 6pm ET, Trump said he has approved the release of U.S. strategic petroleum reserves ‘if needed’ to stabilize energy markets.
He tweeted that the attacks could have an impact on oil prices and says the final amount of the release, if any, would be ‘sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.’
The federally owned petroleum reserve of hundreds of millions of barrels of crude oil has only been tapped three times, most recently in 2011 amid unrest in Libya.
The President then appeared to dispute comments of senior aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, saying he would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without precondition.
He tweeted: ‘The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, “No Conditions.” That is an incorrect statement.’
Based on the attack on Saudi Arabia, which may have an impact on oil prices, I have authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount….
….sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied. I have also informed all appropriate agencies to expedite approvals of the oil pipelines currently in the permitting process in Texas and various other States.
But Mnuchin said Thursday that Trump had made clear ‘he would sit down with Rouhani with no condition.’ And Pompeo told reporters days earlier that ‘the president has made clear he is happy to take a meeting with no preconditions.’
Iran has said it is unwilling to meet with Trump while crushing sanctions are in place over its nuclear program.
Crude oil prices shot up 9.5% to $60 after trading opened Sunday evening in New York. A spike in oil prices could have negative effects for the global economy.
The attack interrupted the production of 5.7 million barrels a day.
The Wall Street Journal cited Saudi officials as saying a third of output would be restored on Monday, but a return to full production may take weeks. The Saudis say they will use other facilities and existing stocks to supplant the plant’s production.
Experts have warned oil prices could nearly double to as much as $100 a barrel.
Tilak Doshi from Muse, Stancil and Co, said: ‘In the oil universe, this attack is perhaps equivalent to the 9/11 attacks. Abqaiq is easily the world’s single most important oil production and processing infrastructure site.’
How Trump called off June strikes on Iran because he ‘didn’t like’ the idea of ‘150 dead people’
President Trump said that he had not given the final go ahead for an Iranian attack when he called off a strike in June.
He told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the planes were still on the ground when he called the whole thing off.
‘Nothing is greenlighted until the very end, because things change,’ Trump said. ‘We had something ready to go, subject to my approval.’
Trump had tweeted that he was ready to attack three Iranian sites but he called off the strikes after learning the assault would kill an estimated 150 people.
‘We were locked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,’ he said in tweets, ‘not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.’
He meant ‘locked and loaded’ and critics were quick to correct him.
Iran’s foreign ministry on Saturday dismissed US accusations it was behind drone attacks on Saudi oil installations as ‘meaningless’, suggesting they were a pretext to retaliate against the Islamic republic.
Infernos raged at the plant in Abqaiq, Bugayg, and the country’s second largest oilfield in Khurais after Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a flurry of rockets.
Huge plumes of black smoke could be seen coming from the oil facility.
A military spokesperson for these Yemeni rebels, who are locked into a bloody civil war, claimed responsibility for the strikes on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil giant Aramco.
In a statement released by the Saudi Press Agency, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz says explosions at Saudi Aramco’s Khurais and Abqaiq plants caused several fires that were controlled, but there were no injuries.
Prince Abdulaziz says the attacks were aimed not only at Saudi Arabia, but also at the world’s oil supply and its security.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said Washington and its allies were ‘stuck in Yemen’ and that blaming Tehran ‘won’t end the disaster’.
Pompeo laid the sole blame at the feet of the Iranian regime, who he accused of mounting an ‘unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply’.
President Trump’s diplomat tweeted: ‘Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy.
‘Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.’
Houthi military spokesman Yahia Sarie announced that the Houthi’s were taking responsibility for the attacks on Saturday in a televised address carried by the Houthi’s Al-Masirah satellite news channel.
He said the Houthis sent 10 drones to attack an oil processing facility in Buqyaq and the Khurais oil field, warning that attacks by the rebels against the kingdom would only get worse if the war in Yemen continues.
Sarie said: ‘The only option for the Saudi government is to stop attacking us.’
Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the UN, the West and Gulf Arab nations say Tehran does. Drone models nearly identical to those used by Iran have been used in the conflict in Yemen.
The attacks highlight how the increasingly advanced weaponry of the Iran-linked Houthi rebels – from ballistic missiles to unmanned drones – poses a serious threat to oil installations in Saudi Arabia, the world’s top crude exporter.
Trump called Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of the drone strikes and expressed the United States’ readiness to cooperate with the kingdom in supporting its security and stability.
Saudi de facto ruler, bin Salman told Trump that Riyadh was willing and able to deal with the ‘terrorist aggression’.
A senior Emirati official said the UAE, Riyadh’s main partner in the Western-backed military coalition in Yemen, would fully support Saudi Arabia as the assault ‘targets us all’.
Trump said recent attacks against Saudi state-run oil facilities have had a negative impact on the US and global economies.
The attack comes after Trump said a meeting with Rouhani was possible at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway did not rule out a possible meeting between the two but told Fox News Sunday that the strikes ‘did not help’ that prospect’.
The attack will likely heighten tensions further across the wider Persian Gulf amid a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
Saudi Aramco operates the world’s largest oil processing facility and crude oil stabilization plant in the world at Abqaiq, in eastern Saudi Arabia. The plant has a crude oil processing capacity of more than 7 million barrels per day.
The facility, which processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, then later transports onto transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, has been targeted in the past by militants.
Al-Qaida claimed suicide bombers tried but failed to attack the oil complex in February 2006.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling Houthi rebels since March 2015. The Iranian-backed Houthis hold Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and other territory in the Arab world’s poorest country.
The violence has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and killed more than 90,000 people since 2015, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the conflict.
Since the start of the Saudi-led war, Houthi rebels have been using drones in combat. The first appeared to be off-the-shelf, hobby-kit-style drones.
Later, versions nearly identical to Iranian models turned up.
The rebels have flown drones into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries, according to Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged.
The Houthis launched drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s crucial East-West Pipeline in May as tensions heightened between Iran and the U.S.
In August, Houthi drones struck Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oil field, which produces some 1 million barrels of crude oil a day near its border with the United Arab Emirates.
U.N. investigators said the Houthis’ new UAV-X drone, found in recent months during the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, likely has a range of up to 930 miles.
That puts the far reaches of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in range.
The interior ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency: ‘At 4.00am the industrial security teams of Aramco started dealing with fires at two of its facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais as a result of… drones.
‘The two fires have been controlled.’
The statement added that an investigation had been launched after the attack in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.
In recent months, the Houthi rebels have carried out a spate of cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities in what it says is retaliation for a Saudi-led air war on rebel-held areas of Yemen.
Tensions in the Gulf have soared since May, with Trump calling off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after it downed a US drone.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have also blamed Iran for multiple attacks on tankers in the Gulf.
The latest attacks come as Saudi Arabia, the world’s top crude exporter, accelerates preparations for a much-anticipated initial public offering of Aramco.
The mammoth IPO forms the cornerstone of a reform programme envisaged by the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman, to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil.
Aramco is ready for a two-stage stock market debut including an international listing ‘very soon’, its CEO Amin Nasser told reporters on Tuesday.
Tehran’s toxic ‘proxy’ war
A civil war has raged in Yemen for five years, during which thousands have died and millions face starvation.
The conflict has been labelled a ‘proxy’ war in which Saudi Arabia and Iran back the opposing sides.
It has its roots in the Arab Spring of 2011, when an uprising forced Yemen’s long-time authoritarian president to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
This transition was supposed to bring stability to one of the Middle East’s poorest nations, but the new president struggled to keep order.
Widespread fighting began in 2014 when Houthi rebels seized large swathes of territory, forcing Mr Hadi into exile.
The Houthi tribal militia – who belong to the Shia branch of Islam – have been backed by Iran, the only major Shia power in the Middle East.
The conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and eight other Sunni Arab states, who back Hadi, began devastating air strikes against the Houthis. The coalition is backed by the UK, US and France.
Following the Houthi attack on Saturday on Saudi Aramco’s crude-oil processing facility, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an obvious and necessary point: Blame Iran.
It is obvious because the Houthi rebels in Yemen lack the drones, missiles or expertise to attack infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia. In 2018, a United Nations panel of experts on Yemen examined the debris of missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen into Saudi Arabia and concluded there was high probability the weapons were shipped in components from Iran. As one Hezbollah commander told two George Washington University analysts in 2016: “Who do you think fires Tochka missiles into Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Houthis in their sandals, it’s us.” Hezbollah, of course, is a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Pompeo’s response is necessary because, historically, Iran pretends to seek peace as it makes war. This is why it sent Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to France last month to plead with the world’s great economic powers as it escalated its proxy war against Saudi Arabia. Iranian diplomacy depends on its adversaries treating the aggression of its proxies as distinct from its statecraft.
What is surprising is that Pompeo’s remarks have already drawn fire from leadingDemocrats. Even Senator Chris Murphy’s more nuanced view (or at least as much nuance as is possible in a tweet) gets the big picture wrong — and it’s worth dwelling on why.
Murphy starts by lamenting the secretary’s “irresponsible simplification” of “Houthis=Iran.” He is smart enough to acknowledge that Iran “is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor.” He then strikes a note of naivete. “The Saudis and Houthis are at war,” he tweeted. “The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back.”
This kind of neutralism is regrettable for a few reasons. To start, the sheer scale and devastation of Saturday’s attack (the Saudis estimate that half of their oil production has been taken out) counts as an escalation. The effects are not limited to Yemen or the Persian Gulf. The world economy will suffer.
And while Murphy is correct to criticize Saudi brutality, as he has in the past, the two sides in this regional conflict are not equivalent. Iran is a revisionist power, challenging the status quo throughout the Levant and the Gulf. The U.S. and its allies are trying to keep Iran in check. The U.S. has tried to pressure Saudi Arabia to de-escalate, whereas Iran is pushing the Houthis to dig in.
Fortunately, Murphy and other Democrats will not decide how to respond to this latest aggression. This decision falls to President Donald Trump. And now is a good time to re-evaluate his recent push to negotiate with Iran. The president could start by reaffirming Pompeo’s 12 conditions for sanctions relief for Iran. Last month, Trump pared them down to three, narrowly related to its nuclear program. Indeed, the Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia shows just how important it is that any future deal commit the Iranian regime to ending its adventures in the Middle East.
Trump also now needs to reconsider military options to deter future escalations. As I have reported, U.S. intelligence agencies have mapped the precise locations of Iranian bases and commanders in Yemen and the Middle East. If Trump wants to respond militarily without attacking Iranian territory, he has many targets outside the country.
If Trump continues to pursue negotiations with Iran’s regime, he will be inviting more attacks on America’s allies. This is exactly the strategy — and the consequences — followed and paid by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in his second term. During and after the negotiations for the nuclear deal, Iran armed and trained its proxies in Syria and later in Yemen. The Middle East is now paying for these mistakes. Trump would be a fool to repeat them.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirate — Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched drone attacks on the world’s largest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia and a major oil field Saturday, sparking huge fires at a vulnerable choke point for global energy supplies.
The drone attacks affected up to half of the supplies from the world’s largest exporter of oil, though the output should be restored within days, multiple news outlets reported, citing unidentified sources. It was unclear whether anyone was injured at the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field.
The attacks follow weeks of similar drone assaults on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure, but none of the earlier strikes appeared to have caused the same amount of damage. The attacks likely will further increase tensions across the Persian Gulf amid an escalating crisis between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The Iranian-backed Houthis, who hold Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and other territory in the Arab world’s poorest country, took responsibility for the attacks in the war against a Saudi-led coalition that has fought since 2015 to reinstate the internationally recognized Yemeni government. But the U.S. blamed Iran, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
“Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo added.
In a short address aired by the Houthi’s Al-Masirah satellite news channel, military spokesman Yahia Sarie said the rebels launched 10 drones after receiving “intelligence” support from those inside the kingdom. He warned that attacks by the rebels would only get worse if the war continues.
“The only option for the Saudi government is to stop attacking us,” Sarie said.
Houthi rebels have been using drones in combat since the start of the Saudi-led war. The first appeared to be off-the-shelf, hobby-kit-style drones. Later, versions nearly identical to Iranian models turned up. Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the U.N., the West and Gulf Arab nations say Tehran does.
U.N. investigators said the Houthis’ new UAV-X drone likely has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles). That puts the far reaches of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in range.
First word of Saturday’s assault came in online videos of giant fires at the Abqaiq facility, some 330 kilometers (205 miles) northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Machine-gun fire could be heard in several clips alongside the day’s first Muslim call to prayers, suggesting security forces tried to bring down the drones just before dawn. In daylight, Saudi state television aired a segment with its local correspondent near a police checkpoint, a thick plume of smoke visible behind him.
In a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the Interior Ministry said an investigation was underway.
Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.
President Donald Trump called Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to offer his support for the kingdom’s defense, the White House said. The crown prince assured Trump that Saudi Arabia is “willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression,” according to a news release from the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said it was unaware of any injuries to Americans. Saudi Aramco employs a number of U.S. citizens, some of whom live in guarded compounds near the site.
Saudi Aramco describes its Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq as “the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world.”
The facility processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, then transports it onto transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea or to refineries for local production. Estimates suggest it can process up to 7 million barrels of crude oil a day. By comparison, Saudi Arabia produced 9.65 million barrels of crude oil a day in July.
The Khurais oil field is believed to produce over 1 million barrels of crude oil a day. It has estimated reserves of over 20 billion barrels of oil, according to Aramco.
There was no immediate impact on global oil prices as markets were closed for the weekend. Benchmark Brent crude had been trading at just above $60 a barrel.
While Saudi Arabia has taken steps to protect itself and its oil infrastructure, analysts had warned that Abqaiq remained vulnerable. The Rapidan Energy Group, a Washington-based advisory group, warned in May that “a successful attack could lead to a monthslong disruption of most Saudi production and nearly all spare production.” It called Abqaiq, close to the eastern Saudi city of Dammam, “the most important oil facility in the world.”
The war has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The violence has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and killed more than 90,000 people since 2015, according to the U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the conflict.
The rebels have flown drones into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries, according to Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged. The Houthis launched drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s crucial East-West Pipeline in May. In August, Houthi drones struck Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oil field.
Associated Press writer Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.
The Trump administration is offering up to $15 million for information that helps disrupt Iran’s sources of funding for terrorism.
Special Representative for #Iran Brian Hook announced that the U.S. is offering rewards of up to $15 million for anyone who can help disrupt the financial operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Submit a tip by visiting https://t.co/mpTeFmrsJg. pic.twitter.com/H5JM4PiYau
Specifically, the reward from the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program is for details connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Islamic regime in Iran that the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in April.
“We have taken this step because the IRGC operates more like a terrorist organization than it does a government,” U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters September 4. He said this is the first time the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program has targeted an entity of a foreign government.
Primarily through its Qods Force, the IRGC carries out and directs Tehran’s dangerous and destabilizing global terrorist campaigns.
Started in 1984, Rewards for Justice has paid out more than $150 million to more than 100 people who have provided information that led to terrorist prosecutions or prevented attacks.
The U.S. is seeking information on people or businesses that help the IRGC evade sanctions, including a vast IRGC network that in recent months has provided upward of a billion dollars’ worth of crude oil and other fuel to support Syria’s Bashar Assad, Hizballah and other malign actors.
“Iran wants these groups to extend the borders of the regime’s revolution and sow chaos and sectarian violence,” Hook said.
U.S. officials also announced sanctions against the shipping network, targeting 16 entities, 10 individuals and 11 vessels. They warned the international shipping community that the IRGC often disguises its shipments. The deceptive tactics include falsifying documents and shutting off ships’ transponders in violation of international law.
“Iran’s exportation of oil directly funds acts of terrorism by Iranian proxies and atrocities by the Assad regime against innocent people,” Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said in a September 4 statement. “The international community must vehemently reject Iranian oil and related products in the same way that it rejects the violent acts of terrorism these networks fund.”
The supertanker formerly known as Grace 1 is steaming eastward in the Mediterranean Sea after six weeks in Gibraltar detention, reportedly still carrying more than 2 million barrels of potentially embargo-busting Iranian crude oil.
Iran insists the oil isn’t and never was destined for Syria, which is under U.S. and EU embargo.
But U.S. and European authorities appear wary, and U.S. officials who lost a bid to keep the Grace 1 in detention over alleged ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are warning ports against assisting the tanker, now renamed Adrian Darya 1.
So a high-stakes shell game involving what’s known as a very large crude carrier (VLCC) has moved to the 2.5 million-square-kilometer Mediterranean Sea.
The Adrian Darya 1’s movements are being closely tracked.
But experts have warned in the past of Iranian efforts to hide shipping activities to evade notice, including stepping up those tactics ahead of the reimposition last year of unilateral U.S. sanctions.
And they say that following the precise movements of even a massive tanker like the Adrian Darya 1 is more difficult than people might think.
“If you don’t want the world to know where your ship is, you can very easily hide it,” says Adrian Economakis, chief operating officer of VesselsValue, trackers of commercial and other ships’ movements and their cargoes. “That’s the challenge of the high seas.”
His and other companies follow tens of thousands of vessels around the world in real time.
The system is highly reliant on radio transmissions via what’s known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to a global patchwork of land-based stations and — especially at sea — low-orbiting satellites.
AIS began as a way to avoid collisions and groundings in shallow waters, trackers say, and wasn’t designed to track vessels globally. It has since been adapted into what Economakis calls a “creative solution” to track the world’s 50,000-plus merchant fleet and thousands of other vessels.
“The industry and technology players like us have developed a way of doing it, but…it’s not in any way a foolproof way of tracking the vessels,” Economakis says.
There are said to be new technologies under development, but none that can reliably track vessels.
“AIS is the best, easily accessible, way to track ships globally,” says Georgios Hatzimanolis, a media strategist at Marine Traffic, one of the world’s largest coastal-reception networks. “Satellite tracking is viable, but the shape-recognition technology isn’t matured and in place yet, and the satellite network for such a system [excluding, potentially, government agencies] isn’t active.”
Grace 1’s Case
Since its release last week, the Adrian Darya 1’s Iranian operator charted a course on August 16 for Kalamata, a southern Greek port known more for olive oil than crude.
The National, a United Arab Emirates-based news website, noted that Kalamata “has no oil infrastructure or facilities to handle a [VLCC] such as Grace 1.” And there was speculation that it was looking to offload 1 million barrels of crude.
Two days into its current Mediterranean journey, you could plainly see Adrian Darya 1’s position on the website of VesselFinder, another ship tracker.
Under the UN International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) convention on Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS)*, vessels of at least 300 deadweight tonnage — as is the Adrian Darya 1 — are required to have their AIS transponders on in international waters to regularly transmit their location, registration, speed, course, and other details.
But interruptions of the signals are routine due to onboard equipment failures — real or imagined — or “black spots” due to weak signals or obstructions, heavy radio traffic, or even local military restrictions.
And ships can “go dark” with little more than the flip of a switch of the transponder, with no direct penalties for noncompliance except possible insurance or liability problems.
Bodies like the IMO are constantly trying to discourage crews from turning AIS transponders off.
Iranian and Chinese vessels have been accused for years of switching off AIS when transferring and transporting Iranian crude oil, a major source of foreign income for a government that has spent decades under U.S. and UN sanctions.
In the months before the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in November 2018, vessel watchers like TankerTrackers.com were warning that “Iranian tankers are going to great extremes to hide their activities in the [Persian] Gulf waters.”
“A lot of the vessels remain offline, but we have learned a great deal now about their patterns and movements,” TankerTrackers.com said in September.
This summer, as it navigated from Iranian offshore waters and around Africa, reports claimed the authorities already suspected the Grace 1, now “loaded to capacity,” had used the tactic to avoid detection as it took on crude oil. Gaps in tracking data and zigs and zags in and around the Strait of Hormuz could lend weight to those suspicions.
Based on the past observations of vessel watchers, here are six ways a tanker like the Adrian Darya 1 could again slip out of sight.
Its crew could simply shut down its AIS transmissions to “go dark” at virtually any point on its journey, ostensibly to Kalamata, citing, for instance, a faulty antenna.
The ship would remain visible to radar, so radar tracking and other ships in the vicinity would still see it.
In the summer of 2018, TankerTrackers.com, a self-styled “vigilant and impartial watchdog” to ensure that governments and companies “stay honest,” followed a Turkish oil tanker after it left a Russian Black Sea oil terminal and entered the Mediterranean Sea.
“Once she entered the high seas, the vessel disappeared off the map,” it said in an October report on “clandestine oil transfers,” adding, “This was an intentional effort to go dark.”
Satellite sleuthing and trajectories once the same ship came back online 10 days later suggested to TankerTrackers.com that it had stopped at Ashkelon, an Israeli port that can handle big tankers, possibly to unload and load more crude oil, and was now bound for Spain.
“If a ship is going from an embargo country to another country and they want to hide their tracks — they don’t want the world to know where they went — the easiest thing is for them to turn their AIS off, even though it’s not according to the law,” says Mihail Mitev, manager of commercial sales for VesselFinder.
Trackers say there is almost no way outsiders can be certain why a ship’s transponder was turned off.
Ships In The Night
Another method that utilizes going dark aims to disguise the origin or destination of a ship’s cargo.
And it can be employed by either side in the exchange, while stationary or under way.
Ship-to-ship transfers of cargo are common but also uncommonly tough to decipher in any detailed way if one of the vessels is unidentified — even despite telltale signs that hint at what’s happening.
“I mean, if you see a ship sailing en route to Kalamata, for example, and it coincidentally stops at a place — with other ships or with no ships — for a long time, [and] it makes some strange changes in its course or direction, then we can certainly deduce that something strange happened at that time,” Mitev says.
Experts say ship-to-ship exchanges are particularly effective for tankers, whose liquid cargo is easy to transfer.
Such encounters are thought to be one of the main ways that Tehran has continued to sell large amounts of oil while under international and, now, U.S. sanctions.
Trackers report encountering alternatives to going dark in which ships’ AIS data is somehow falsified.
Put simply, a ship transmits data that is received by a land-based station that in turn passes along that information to a station owner or a tracker. But what if, somewhere along the way after it’s sent, that data is manipulated to misrepresent the ship’s location?
“There’s such software or devices that move the coordinates of the real position of the ship,” Mitev says. “They automatically substitute the real coordinates of the ship with other coordinates — moving its position several degrees east or west, which will certainly move its position a few [nautical] miles or a few hundred miles to another position where it’s not actually at right now.”
Land-based devices are supposed to gather AIS signals at least every minute or so, while gathering signals via satellite — the only option in some cases — is far less frequent.
So such problems can be hard to spot initially, especially on the high seas, but trackers can drill down a bit once they know what they’re after.
“If you want to be 100 percent sure what [a ship] did in the past, and whether that data’s accurate, you get historical data for that ship,” Mitev says. “You can easily evaluate what happens with that ship — even if there are a few incorrectly transmitted positions, it would still be easy for you if you see the whole picture of her movements to evaluate what she did.”
A Friend Indeed
So long as it avoids ports along the way or only stops at the ports or offshore facilities of friendly states, the Adrian Darya 1 could remain off AIS indefinitely and lose itself in the Mediterranean’s heavy traffic.
It was sharing the Mediterranean with roughly 900 other tanker ships and 2,000 cargo ships on August 20, according to VesselFinder.
“The time when you get found out is when you’re coming into port,” Vessels Value’s Economakis says. “So as long as you’re going into ports where that port is not necessarily going to report you to the authority that is looking for the ship, it is very easy to hide.”
One tracking-company executive cites the unlikelihood that officials would bother to report irregularities under certain circumstances, including to the authorities of an unfriendly country or even a friendly one if it reflected badly on the country that spotted it.
It elicited chuckles from at least one tracking-company executive, but cargo ships have been known to go dark and then follow closely behind another that’s transmitting an AIS signal, in apparent hopes of avoiding detection.
One such effort was spotted last year by TankerTrackers.com, which declined to comment for this article. It described the twin travelers as “Iranian tankers” alongside a satellite photo it said was from the Persian Gulf.
September is a steep learning curve as Iranian tankers are going to great extremes to hide their activities in the Gulf waters. A lot of the vessels remain offline, but we have learned a great deal now about their patterns and movements. Green=known. Red=awaiting ID. #OOTT#Iranpic.twitter.com/WL2WHHgVNW
Tankers have also been known to go dark only to quickly reappear under new identities and continue to new destinations.
In January 2018, trackers watched a tanker depart from a Turkish oil terminal before it disappeared from MarineTraffic’s map. A similar-sized tanker showing the same registration number and along a similar trajectory, but with a different name, popped up and continued to the Israeli port of Ashkelon.
“Guys, you’re gonna have to try harder than that,” TankerTrackers.com tweeted at the time.
A few weeks later, a tanker carrying Kurdish crude oil appeared to repeat the maneuver.
“OOPS, THEY DID IT AGAIN!” was TankerTrackers.com’s reaction.
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correctly identify the IMO’s SOLAS as the basis for the AIS requirement.
Deputy foreign minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told broadcaster ANT1 Greece was “not willing to facilitate the course of this ship to Syria” and pointed out the tanker, which is carrying 2 million barrels of crude oil, is too large for any Greek port to accommodate, BBC News reported.
The Iran-flagged Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, is carrying $130 million worth of light crude oil, according to the U.S. The U.S. believes the tanker has ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Middle Eastern nation’s armed forces that the U.S. deemed a terrorist organization. The U.S. said the ship has plans to deliver its cargo to Syria, which would directly violate U.S. sanctions, BBC News reported.
The ship left Gibraltar Sunday after being detained for a month. Gibraltar rejected a last-minute attempt by the U.S. to seize the oil tanker again, arguing that EU regulations are less strict than U.S. sanctions on Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the international community against assisting the Iranians in smuggling oil.
Adrian Darya 1 was heading east in the Mediterranean Sea Monday with its next destination reported to be Kalamata, Greece. The ship is expected to arrive at the Greek port next Sunday, according to ship-tracking service MarineTraffic. It was unclear why the tanker would be heading there or whether the destination could change.
Tehran said any U.S. attempt to seize the tanker would have “heavy consequences,” according to Reuters. Commander of Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Alireza Tangsiri told the Iranian News Agency “the Adrian Darya vessel needs no escort.”
Tangsiri added that the ship is “Korean-made” and owned by Russia. The U.S. argued in unsealed court documents that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the ship’s true owners through a network of front companies. The chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, said he had been assured in writing by the Iranian government that the tanker wouldn’t unload its cargo in Syria.
The Iranian ship was detained while sailing under a Panamanian flag with the name Grace 1. It changed the name on Sunday and hoisted an Iranian flag.
Fox News’ Trey Yingst, Edmund DeMarche and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Estimates as to the volume of Iranian crude that’s made its way to China between last January and May vary from 12 million to 14 million barrels.
China keeps the crude in “bonded storage,” which means the oil has not been cleared through Chinese customs and is not being used, therefore not yet violating U.S. sanctions
Oil could fall by $5 to $7 a barrel if China were to draw down on these stored volumes, one expert told CNBC.
Iranian oil tankers have been quietly offloading their supply into Chinese ports, according to ship tracking data, despite U.S. sanctions on crude from the Islamic Republic.
These flows, which experts say show no sign of stopping, could seriously disrupt U.S.-China trade talks as well as oil markets if Beijing decides to actually use them.
Estimates as to the volume of Iranian crude that’s made its way to China between last January and May vary from 12 million to 14 million barrels, an amount that market watchers say could dramatically impact the price of oil.
“If China were to aggressively purchase Iranian crude oil and/or draw down on these stored volumes, oil prices would likely fall by $5.00 to $7.00 per barrel,” John Kilduff, founding partner of energy trading firm Again Capital, told CNBC on Thursday. “It would be a meaningful outlet for Iranian supplies that have been severely crimped by the sanctions.”
Stephen Brennock, an analyst at PVM Oil Associates, agrees. “It’s fair to assume that global oil prices would come under pressure if China decided to draw on the Iranian oil stored in its ports,” he said. “It would also likely trigger a harsh response from the (President Donald) Trump administration.”
But there is at least one reason Washington hasn’t sounded the alarm over these Persian barrels. China keeps them in what’s called “bonded storage,” which means the oil has not been cleared through Chinese customs and is not being used, therefore not actually violating U.S. sanctions. Kilduff estimates that another 20 million barrels are “en route, likely headed for this bonded storage.”
This benefits both Iran and China in a few ways.
A win for Iran?
Iran’s onshore and floating storage is rising in inventory due to reduced exports — but it can’t just stop pumping oil because its export capacity has plummeted. That’s because leaving the oil underground could lead to permanent damage to its oil wells. So, in the words of one analyst, “They need to tuck that oil away instead of endangering the future output of their oilfields.”
Putting it in Chinese bonded storage offers Iran a convenient solution, and one that means it doesn’t have to use so many of its tankers as floating storage facilities.
The setup also advantages Iran, Kilduff says, “because it gets its oil pre-positioned in the key Asian market, ready for sale, if sanctions get eased, a financial work-around is struck, or via barter transactions, where the oil is traded for goods.”
Meanwhile, the situation advantages China because it gets a major discount on the oil and it functions as payment for work that Chinese companies are doing in Iran, analysts say.
“These risky barrels are heavily discounted by the Iranians,” Kilduff said. “So, it’s a good deal.”
Chinese storage is “a convenient place to store and gives the Iranians and Chinese options, especially if the Chinese wish to flout U.S. sanctions,” Richard Nephew, program director at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, told CNBC. “Neither likes the U.S. and private sector ability to track tankers. This helps to address that problem, even if we can also all see how storage is tapped.”
The Chinese Commerce Ministry and National Energy Administration did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.
The Trump administration re-imposed heavy sanctions on Iran last year and tightened the noose on its oil exports last May after ending sanctions waivers that let some of the world’s largest buyers of Iranian oil keep importing it. That waiver list included China.
But the crude stockpiles also present a liability for China, analysts say — not least because of its more than year-long trade fight with the Trump administration.
The Iranian oil stored in China’s bonded tanks is still owned by Tehran, specifically by the state-run National Iranian Oil Company, so therefore doesn’t yet breach any sanctions.
“However, such a move risks Washington’s wrath,” said PVM’s Brennock. “U.S. sanctions on Chinese entities would inevitably be imposed which, in turn, would add some spice to their long-running trade battle.” The Chinese economy has already suffered due in large part to the trade war with Washington, hitting its slowest pace of growth in 27 years during the second quarter of 2019.
The Trump administration to date has put tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, while China has retaliated with $110 billion in levies on U.S. goods. The American president has most recently threatened new tariffs of 10% on $300 billion in Chinese goods.
“It is a liability for China because running afoul of the U.S. sanctions is serious business,” Kilduff said. “China’s very large, state-owned refiners are major international players in the global oil and refined products market. They cannot and will not risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system. The U.S. could easily determine that ‘bonded storage’ is a euphemism for landed supply.”
Meanwhile, the only liability for Tehran is that they have to “seriously discount” these suspect barrels, Kilduff added. “The economic squeeze is considerable.”
According to Kilduff and Again Capital, there are another 20 million barrels headed for China’s bonded storage. What the Chinese decide to do with those barrels may determine whether they prove to be a wrench in trade war discussions, a bargain buy for China, or a ticking time bomb for oil markets.
Following the steep decline of Iranian oil exports after the U.S. ended all waivers for Iran’s oil buyers, Iran is calling on China and other ‘friendly countries’, as it put it, to buy more crude oil from the Islamic Republic.
“Even though we are aware that friendly countries such as China are facing some restrictions, we expect them to be more active in buying Iranian oil,” Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Jahangiri was meeting with Song Tao, Head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, in Tehran this week.
China, the single largest buyer of Iranian crude oil before the U.S. sanctions hit the Islamic Republic’s oil exports, continues to import oil from Iran, despite the ‘zero exports’ maximum pressure campaign of the United States. China has said that it wouldn’t comply with the U.S. sanctions on Iranian exports. Yet, Chinese oil imports from Iran are much lower than they used to be just a few months ago.
According to Chinese customs data, cited by Reuters, Iran sent a bit over 208,000 bpd of crude to China, which was down from over 250,000 bpd in May.
Early this month, the U.S. threatened to hit China with sanctions over its continued imports of Iranian oil. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. is imposing sanctions on Chinese entity Zhuhai Zhenrong and its CEO Youmin Lin because “they violated U.S. law by accepting crude oil.”
“We’ve said all along that any sanction will indeed be enforced,” Secretary Pompeo said, adding “No entity should support the regime’s destabilizing conduct by providing it with money.”
“The US imagines that it can zero down our oil sales by exerting pressure on the countries which purchase Iran’s oil to lead Iran’s economy towards a collapse, but fortunately, the situation of Iran’s economy enjoys an acceptable stability one year after the US oil sanctions,” Iran’s Fars news agency quoted Jahangiri as saying during the meeting with the top Chinese diplomat this week.
Despite Iran’s claims that its economy is resilient, the World Bank and the IMF expect the Iranian economy to plunge deeper into recession because of the U.S. sanctions that have cut a large portion of Iran’s main foreign income generator, oil.