LONDON/DUBAI - Iranian oil tankers are sending incorrect
satellite signals that confuse global tracking systems and appear to conceal
voyages made by other ships to Syria, which, like Iran, is subject to
The two countries are close allies and have
helped each other deal with shortages by swapping badly needed fuels such as
gasoline for diesel.
Sanctions imposed on Iran to hamper its nuclear
program have blocked sales of its oil to the West and made it increasingly
difficult for Iran's fleet to obtain insurance and financing for deals with
Asian buyers in China, India and South Korea.
Western sanctions have also
isolated Syria, preventing it from exporting oil, while blocking fuel and
Iranian state tanker company NITC has already changed
many tanker names as part of its response to sanctions, though shipping experts
say such a tactic would not confuse anyone in the business about a vessel's
Now tanker tracking data monitored by Reuters and shipping
specialists have highlighted a more subtle twist.
Large vessels must
transmit their identity and location to other ships and coastal authorities
using an automatic satellite communication system, but in the last month Iranian
vessels sailing in Asian seas have sent signals that took over the identity of
other vessels, so the same ship appeared to be in two places at once.
is of course possible to manipulate or falsify information in these messages,"
said Richard Hurley, a senior analyst at IHS Fairplay, a maritime intelligence
At least three Iranian oil tankers are transmitting such false
signals, effectively taking over the identity of Syrian-owned vessels travelling
between Syria, Libya and Turkey.
All the vessels in question were
registered in Tanzania.
"In the past months we witness a recurring
pattern of vessels sailing the Tanzanian flag that transmit the same MMSI number
(a satellite signal that provides information on a ship's identity and
position)," said Windward, a firm that provides maritime analytics
"This way, if one of the two vessels is engaged in legitimate
maritime activities, it might be used as a 'cloaking' for the other vessel and
its activities." Iranian oil tanker Millionaire sent messages that doubled over
a voyage made by a Syrian-owned ship, the Lady Rasha.
In a separate
instance, the satellite tracks of Iranian oil tanker Pioneer were mixed up with
a Tanzania-flagged cargo ship called the Talavera, recently renamed Chief Ahmed,
and traveling from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea.
Despite all the
paired vessels appearing to be registered under Tanzanian flags, officials in
mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar denied holding any information on the
They have directed queries to a shipping agency in Dubai,
Philtex Corporation, which they say registered some Iranian ships under the
Tanzanian flag without their knowledge.
Philtex confirmed it had
registered the Syrian-owned Lady Rasha, but could not provide details on the
Iranian tankers in question.
Satellite signals on
position, course and speed are typically sent from onboard navigation systems
with no human input. Others, like arrival time, are input by crew.
Blackhurst, head of maritime security at Inmarsat, which provides satellite
communication services, said a ship could get its Global Positioning System
(GPS) to give false data, including pretending to be another
"That equipment is programmable one way or another," he said,
adding that he had come across data manipulation by ships involved in illegal
fishing or waste dumping.
Syrian-owned Lady Rasha's satellite track first
mixed up with the Iranian-owned oil tanker Millionaire on Oct. 20, when the
tanker began transmitting the same signal as the cargo ship.
was then docked in Benghazi, Libya. The Millionaire tanker was sailing in the
To do this, the Millionaire changed its MMSI, a message
that contains both location and identity data, from 572450210 to match the Lady
Rasha's number: 677030700.
Although the Lady Rasha sent signals during
its journey across the eastern Mediterranean, its identity was overwritten by
the Iranian ship, which was also sending position signals of its own from the
As a result, the Millionaire appears to be undertaking two
parallel journeys thousands of miles apart, while the Lady Rasha's track is not
On one track the Millionaire can been seen sailing the Lady
Rasha's course in the Mediterranean, and on the other it is powering though the
Indian Ocean from east Asia back to Iran.
However, another piece of
identification data, the IMO, can't be changed, and that, too, is sent with
every message on position, which enabled vessel-tracking experts to detect that
signals came from two different ships.
A day after the Millionaire's MMSI
changed, the Lady Rasha left Libya and arrived in Syria on Oct. 26, the Tartous
port authority said, where it unloaded cattle and crates, the contents of which
the Syrian port authority said were not known.
The Lady Rasha is owned by
ISM Group, according to the Syrian port authority at Tartous, a firm that came
under the spotlight after Lebanon seized one of its ships with three containers
filled with weapons earlier this year, including explosives with labels
indicating their origin as Libya.
The port authority at Tartous confirmed
the Lady Rasha had called there and the Millionaire had not, but a senior NITC
official denied the Iranian tanker had sent out signals that belonged to another
"It is not possible practically to do this," the NITC official
said, declining further comment.
The Lady Rasha's owners could not be
reached for comment, while the agency that registered the vessel with Tanzania
said it was unaware of the duplicate signals.
"We have no idea and we
cannot justify why they are emitting the same satellite signals," said Jocelyn
Acosta, director of operations at registering agency Philtex
Acosta said Philtex cooperated with requests made by United
States government agencies and others to identify a ship's owner and had
deregistered a number of vessels accordingly.
Tanzania under scrutiny
a similar example of Tanzania-registered ships confusing satellite systems, the
track left by the cargo ship Talavera became mixed up with NITC oil tanker
The Talavera changed its name to Chief Ahmed in November around
the time a Hamas military commander called Ahmed Al-Jaabari was assassinated by
In this case tracking systems showed Pioneer undertaking two
parallel journeys in late October thousands of miles apart.
On one track,
the tanker appeared to sail from the Suez Canal to the Red Sea - stopping off in
Jordan and Yemen on its way to Iran - while at the same time travelling through
the South China Sea to the Chinese port of Ningbo.
"Using another MMSI
other than your own can only be done among the same flag members and has to be
done by one of the workers in the flag offices," said a Western diplomatic
source, who monitors efforts to track Iranian tankers.
registered in mainland Tanzania or Zanzibar fly the Tanzanian flag, and
officials in both offices said they were unaware of any Iranian vessels on their
Responding to diplomatic pressure by the United States and
European Union to drop all Iranian tankers from their registries, Tanzania's
foreign minister issued a statement denying Iran's vessels had been legitimately
"All the 36 Iranian ships were de-registered and hence
stopped using our national flag. We have not registered any new ships as
claimed," said Bernard Membe, adding that Tanzania had asked the US and EU to
help investigate the Dubai-based agency that had registered the
"If we establish that this (Iranian tankers have been
registered) has happened we will cancel the registrations." Vessels without a
flag cannot be insured, dock in most ports or use the vital Suez Canal shortcut
between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.
Manipulating or turning off
satellite tracking devices is not necessarily an indication that a vessel is
trying to conceal illegal activity, according to International Maritime Bureau
director Pottengal Mukundan.
"Vessels sometimes shut their AIS when they
are going into pirate waters for example, as they wouldn't want anyone to pick
up their signal because they could then be targeted by pirates," he
Straightforward breaks in satellite signals have also been seen in
the east Mediterranean.
An Iranian tanker that loaded a cargo of gasoline
in Syria transmitted a message on tracking systems that it was heading for Libya
in early November.
Satellite tracking showed the ship, the Alvan, sailed
west towards Libya before dropping off the radar for at least 24
When it began to transmit again, it was sailing back in the
opposite direction, east towards the Suez Canal, eventually returning to Iran in
Libyan authorities say they have not engaged in any oil
trade with Iran, and no Iranian tankers had passed through Libyan
"I assure you we never received any Iranian vessels in our oil
terminals to load or unload," said Ahmed Shawki, the head of marketing at
Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC).