Iran Tries To Dismiss Panama’s Claims About Ship ‘Deflagging’

A dispute involving the Panama, Iran and the U.S. continued to develop over the weekend, with the Iranian authorities seekig to play down a claim by the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP) that it had cancelled the registration of 136 Iranian-linked ships in the past four years over concerns about sanctions-busting.

The dispute began on January 16, when former Florida governor Jeb Bush wrote an article in the Washington Post in which he claimed that Panama had been “instrumental in the [Iranian] regime’s continued survival”, enabling Tehran to smuggle oil and gas around the world.

Bush claimed that Panama was the registry for 39% of the 288 ships that a group called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) had suspected of being involved in the illicit transfer of Iranian crude oil or petroleum products.

Bush, who sits on the UANI advisory board, went on to say that the AMP had ‘deflagged’ just 18 vessels of the 130 that UANI had told it were of concern.

The AMP, which is in charge of the world’s largest ship registry, rejected Bush’s claims a few days later. In a statement issued on January 19, the organisation said it had withdrawn the flag of 678 ships from its registry since 2019, in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and in line with Panama’s efforts to combat terrorist financing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

It also said that, over the past four years, it had cancelled the registration of 136 ships in which a direct link with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) had been proven.

The AMP registry accounts for around 16% of the world maritime fleet. It said it had mechanisms in place to spot potential links between shipping and the financing of terrorism or other nefarious activities.

It also said that, since August 2019, it has had an arrangement with a dozen other major international ship registries, including the likes of Liberia and the Marshall Islands, to share information about ships suspected of being used for sanctionable activity.

Panama’s efforts to refute Bush’s claims have not gone down well in Iran, however.

On January 22, Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization (PMO) issued a statement saying Panama’s claims that it had cancelled the registry of 136 ships linked to Iran’s national oil company were “insignificant and unsubstantiated” and said the decision to publicize such actions was “due to political pressure by the imperialist government of the United States”.

According to local media in Iran, the PMO has also said the Panamanian government “should consider the legal and international implications of making such statements”.

UANI also issued a response to AMP’s statement, saying the registry had “failed to adequately and directly address the concerns expressed by UANI” and said ships belonging to NIOC were only part of the problem, with other vessels linked to the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) also a concern.

Iran’s PMO has said in recent days that all ships belonging to the IRISL are now sailing under the flag of Iran.