A Tel Aviv-based civil rights group accused UK satellite operator Inmarsat Plc over the weekend of admitting it provides its technology to Iranian oil tankers.

Shurat HaDin (Israel Law Center) warned Inmarsat last month that the company could risk civil as well as criminal proceedings in US courts if it did not stop supplying its guidance services to Iranian military vessels and tankers.

Rich Harris, Inmarsat’s senior vice president told Shurat HaDin that the group’s allegations had no basis, and that Inmarsat is not violating sanctions.

According to Harris, after the British government privatized Inmarsat in 1999, the company was obliged to continue its “public service obligations” to “ensure the continuity of maritime satellite distress and safety communications services” for the UN’s Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Inmarsat was obliged to provide all ships with distress communications systems “without discrimination on the basis of nationality,” Harris noted.

In response, Shurat HaDin director and civil rights activist Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said that Inmarsat could still be in violation of sanctions, despite its UN obligations.

“It is undeniably true that the purpose of the sanctions on Iran is to prevent their ships from sailing. In other words, withdrawal of the mandatory safety communications services would effectively prevent Iranian ships setting sail,” she said. “In addition, US law trumps and voids any contractual or international convention obligations that may be in conflict with it as well.”

The warning letter came in the wake of recent US Treasury Department sanctions against Iranian vessels, imposed last month.

The sanctions identify 58 National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) vessels by name. The Treasury Department said identifying the vessels would help companies and individuals comply with sanctions against Iran and undermine Iranian attempts to use NITC front companies to evade sanctions.

Twenty-eight of the vessels that the department named appear on Inmarsat’s shipping directory as being in receipt of the company’s services.

In a July 26 interview with Space News, Inmarsat spokesman Christopher McLaughlin had said that “some of these ships [on the Treasury Department list] nonetheless appear to be using older Inmarsat gear,” while noting that the company is not informed as to the identity of its customers, because of its history as an international treaty organization.

In that interview, McLaughlin said that these were “heritage services” installed before its distribution partners had to inform it of its customers’ exact identities.

“It is unacceptable for a global company to seek to cover up its links to Iranian interests or to claim these ties are handled by third party partners or vendors, which by itself is a violation of US law,” Darshan-Leitner told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, vowing to pursue the matter if Inmarsat did not cease its dealings with Iran.

The developments in the Inmarsat row came as Iran tried to downplay the effects of oil sanctions on Sunday, citing a Russian expert who said the Islamic Republic could develop new markets in Africa and China.

Both the Islamic Republic News Agency and Fars News Agency cited an interview that Russian politician and Middle East expert Semyon Bagdasarov gave to Russian business daily Kommersant on Saturday, in which he said the Iran could also ship crude to other countries close to the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian reports came as India’s state-run oil company Hindustan Petroleum (HPCL) made its first payment for Iranian crude in rupees on Saturday.

According to Reuters, who cited an unnamed company source, HPCL has paid $49.25 million in Indian rupees to Iran through UCO Bank and $60m. through Halkbank.

However, as the rupee is a weak currency and not widely accepted around the world, Iran will not be able to use it to purchase all the goods it needs.

India is one of several importers of Iranian crude granted temporary exemptions to US sanctions, however the country has had difficulty in insuring tankers transporting oil from Teheran after EU sanctions prevented access to coverage on the UK’s insurance market.

Even as HPCL continues to ship Iranian crude, Lloyd’s List reported Friday that two of India’s top shipowners – SCI and Great Eastern – have said they are unwilling to import crude from Teheran under the country’s $50m. third-party liability cover from state-owned insurance companies.

According to Bloomberg, crude shipments from Iran have dropped by 1.2 million barrels per day since US-led sanctions came into effect on July 1, which will cost Iran about 10 percent of its economy every year.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger