Oil spill off Israel’s coast reveals Iranian smuggling dangers
Mar 16, 2021 | Judy Maynard
The environmental damage wreaked by a recent oil spill off Israel’s Mediterranean coast is the visible manifestation of a much larger and more insidious problem.
Wildlife victims of Israel’s largest ecological disaster include a whale, turtles, birds and fish, and gobs of tar have polluted beaches in the southeastern Mediterranean Sea from the Sinai Peninsula to southern Lebanon. The most contaminated are the shores of Israel and the Gaza Strip. Environmentalists say it could take years to clean up the damage.
The tar appeared on Israeli beaches on Feb 17, but using both the chemical composition of the oil, and maritime intelligence, analysts were able to track its origin to a spill of crude oil on Feb. 1-2 from a tanker called the Emerald which had sailed from Iran to Syria.
On March 3, Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel, not only blamed the spill on Iran but accused Teheran of committing a deliberate act of eco-terrorism. This last claim, however, has not been supported by Israel’s defence establishment.
None of which is to say that the oil spill was an innocent accident. On the contrary, it appears clear that this environmental disaster was a direct result of dangerous, illicit behaviour in the form of botched oil smuggling operations by Iran, in contravention of US and EU sanctions.
Two independent investigations have confirmed Israel’s account of what happened. In mid-January the Emerald was anchored at Iran’s oil terminus at Kharg Island, from where she sailed south. On Feb. 1 she sailed up the Suez Canal and by the following day was roughly west of the Israeli city of Haifa. Remaining in international waters east of Cyprus, she engaged in a ship-to-ship oil transfer with an Iranian-flagged oil tanker, the Lotus, on Feb. 14. On Feb. 22, the Lotus delivered the crude oil to the city of Baniyas, home of one of Syria’s largest oil refineries.
Moreover, International Maritime Organisation regulations require ships to at all times operate a tracking system known as automatic identification system (AIS). According to Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry, the Emerald’s AIS was turned off after it left Iran, turned on again as it traversed the Suez, then turned off as it approached Israel.
It was there, within Israel’s economic waters and only 16 kilometres from shore, that the oil was discharged, according to the Ministry. As the ship headed north the transponder was again turned on.
“Going dark” by turning off transponders, as well as flying a flag of convenience, are common sanction evasion practices. The Emerald was sold in December 2020 and reflagged from Malta to Panama. According to shipping industry journal Lloyd’s List, its anonymous and untraceable owner is registered in the Marshall Islands. The Emerald joined “a fleet of some 130 elderly tankers … purchased over the last 18 months by disparate, anonymous owners for immediate deployment in US-sanctioned trades that operate beyond the reach of authorities.” It now appears that the ultimate owners of the Emerald, hidden behind a web of complex arrangements, is the Malah family of Syria.
Iran’s fleet of oil tankers, 54 in 2019, is the second largest state-owned fleet in the world, but many or most of these additional tankers are almost certainly being used to smuggle Iranian oil in violation of sanctions because they are less scrutinised.
The average life expectancy of a tanker is 20 years. The Emerald was built in 2002. The catastrophic environmental fallout from the practice of loading ageing tankers with a toxic cargo is readily apparent in the case of the Emerald, but this murky scenario has far more dangerous and widespread implications.
By operating hidden from international scrutiny, employing ageing tankers with dubious and untraceable ownership whose captains have little incentive to obey normal environmental and maritime law, these operations have long been an accident waiting to happen. And much worse could still occur.
Bad as the spill off Israel was, it involved only 1,000 tons of crude oil – and the Emeraldholds 90,000 tons. Had it been involved in a collision and experienced a major breach, the resulting spill could have been up to 90 times worse.
Both Syria and Iran have, for many years, been subject to sanctions. In 2011, the EU introduced sanctions against Syria, including a ban on oil importation, in response to the violent and brutal repression by the Syrian regime of its civilian population. These sanctions remain in place. Similar sanctions have been put in place by the US.
With respect to Iran, in November 2018, the Trump Administration reimposed sanctions following the US withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. This is the latest in a series of sanctions imposed on Iran’s petroleum industry, and was prompted by concern that the revenue generated from Iran’s oil trade was funding extremism and instability throughout the region. US officials have said that the sanctions aim to force the Iranian government to make changes to domestic and foreign policy, including its nuclear program.
Sanctions were further tightened in October 2020, when key actors in Iran’s oil sector – the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), and the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) – were designated for providing financial support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).
Then-Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin stated, “The regime in Iran uses the petroleum sector to fund the destabilising activities of the IRGC-QF. The Iranian regime continues to prioritise its support for terrorist entities and its nuclear program over the needs of the Iranian people.”
These terrorist entities include Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Taliban.
While most oil-related sanctions apply to shipping, maritime smuggling is not the only method Iran employs. For example, its links with Iraqi militias generate revenue for the IRGC through the overland transportation of crude oil by truck from western Iraq to Syria.
While the US sanctions have had a seriously damaging effect, they have not succeeded in their aim of “reducing to zero” Iran’s crude oil revenue.
China, for example, which had continued importing Iranian oil throughout the sanctions period, has recently increased this to record levels.
And, since the Biden Administration took office, NIOC has begun sounding out other potential Asian customers. Indian refiners are reportedly hoping to resume oil imports, in the expectation that restrictions will soon ease. Turkey is thought to have been another recipient of Iranian oil.
The clandestine activities that took place off the Israeli coast in early February, with such devastating environmental effect, are only a small part of the dangerous ripple effect emanating from Iranian oil smuggling operations, as well as its efforts to breach international sanctions on Syria.