French ship company faces US sanctions for 'Iran ties'

By JOHANNES C. BOCKENHEIMER
May 30, 2011 23:51

CMA CGM ships, loaded with arms reportedly headed for Iran, caught in Mediterranean; Russia blocks release of UN Iran-Syria weapons report.




Officials displaying arms from the Victoria ship.

Victoria arms ship 311. (photo credit:Marc Israel Sellem)

BERLIN/DUSSELDORF – Leading US congressmen are urging the the US Treasury Department to consider sanctions against the world’s third-largest container shipping company – France’s CMA CGM – for possible violations of sanctions on Iran that entail significant instances of weapons smuggling, according to letters obtained by The Jerusalem Post.

In March, the CMA CGMoperated container ship MV Victoria was seized by the Israel Navy in the Mediterranean and escorted to Ashdod Port. More than 50 tons of weapons from Iran were aboard. They included anti-ship missiles, 3,000 mortar shells and almost 70,000 rounds of ammunition for machine guns.

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The Victoria’s route took it from Latakia, Syria, through the port of Mersin in Turkey to Alexandria, Egypt, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Meron Reuben said. According to Israeli security officials, the weapons were destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

This is not the first time CMA CGM has reportedly been involved in controversial trade with Iran.

In December, Rep. Peter King (R-New York) wrote to Philippe Soulié, CEO of the shipping company. King said he was “deeply concerned” about the French firm’s trade relationship with the regime in Iran. King is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

A few weeks earlier, the company’s MV Everest container ship was seized off the Nigerian coast, fully loaded with Iranian weapons. King warned the shipping company against half-heartedly monitoring its freight in light of international sanctions.

In a letter made available to the Post, he said the shipper should expect “severe penalties” in the United States.

Soulié wrote in response that the MV Everest had been chartered by a company that did not appear on the US Treasury’s sanctions list.

Soulié assured King that the company was fully aware of the UN, US and EU sanctions. He insisted that CMA CGM was at the “forefront of shipping companies” in adherence to laws and regulations, especially in regard to the Iranian regime.

However, barely three months later, the MV Victoria became the next French ship to be seized with Iranian weapons aboard.

“The group is working closely with the responsible authorities in the fight against illegal transports,” CMA CGM wrote in a statement to the Post.

“CMA CGM was, like other important world-wide shipping companies, a victim of false transport documentation from the sender, and with help of the consignor, CMA CGM was misled about the true nature of the transportation goods.”

In an April letter obtained by the Post, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) wrote to the US Treasury and State departments that the “repeated failures” of the shipping company to adhere to international guidelines demanded an American response. He called for the Treasury to hit CMA CGM hard: It would not be allowed to sail to any Iranian port; otherwise it would face US sanctions.

Moreover, it would have to ratchet up the inspection of its business partners and cargo loads.

CMA CGM’s North American headquarters is in Norfolk, Virginia.

According to its website, the firm is one of the top 10 maritime cargo companies in the United States and has “double- digit yearly growth.”

In recent years, several other shipping companies headquartered in Europe have stood out as enablers of Iran’s weapons trafficking, with Hamburg serving as the European hub, according to German, Israeli and American security experts.

From there, Iran’s state shipping company IRISL was able to do business freely for years.

Only in 2009, when the German freighter MV Hansa India from the Leonhardt & Blumberg shipping company was caught supplying weapons to Hezbollah did Berlin tentatively intervene. From then on, business with IRISL was subject to stricter monitoring, security experts said.

Both the MV Everest and the MV Victoria are owned by German shipping companies and leased by French shippers. Iran tries to “procure across a broad front,” said Paul Warmers, president of Germany’s Customs Criminal Investigation Office. The number of violations of Germany’s War Weapons Control Act and Foreign Trade Act has risen continuously; in the past year alone there were 110, Warmers said.

But the measures had little effect, according to security experts. The Iranians avoided monitoring through a network of more than a dozen dummy corporations that continued the parent company’s business.

It was the Americans who first became aware of these questionable transactions. In September, the US Treasury placed the companies, all of them based in Hamburg’s upscale Uhlenhorst district, on the sanctions list.

The Hamburg state prosecutor’s office has been investigating “unidentified employees” of IRISL in the MV Hansa India case since 2009, but no investigation has been initiated so far against IRISL’s subsidiaries, according to a representative of the prosecutor’s office. Still, with the new round of EU sanctions, the finances of the IRISL dummy companies will be frozen, the EU said.

The State of Israel filed a complaint with the UN Security Council sanctions committee because of the MV Victoria case.

In a March letter obtained by the Post, Ambassador Reuben wrote to the president of the Security Council that Iran’s attempt via Syria to transfer weapons to the Gaza Strip constituted a “blatant violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions.” Reuben called for “firm action” against Iran and Syria.

Diplomats in Israel and New York told the Post that not only were the Iranians involved in the MV Victoria weapons smuggling affair, but also the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The content of the UN report looking into the MV Victoria affair has not been made public.

According to diplomats in Israel and at the UN, Russia is going to great lengths to block the publication of the report.

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