Avoiding detection: The team tracking Iran’s attempt to cloak its oil exports

Samir Madani and Lisa Ward run an online service that shows how tankers seek to hide their movements. On the eve of Iran sanctions, the tracking takes on great importance.

People shop at the Grand Bazaar in the center of Tehran, Iran, August 2, 2017 (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS)
People shop at the Grand Bazaar in the center of Tehran, Iran, August 2, 2017
Iran may benefit from assumptions that it is shipping less oil on the eve of US sanctions that begin on November 4. According to a team that tracks crude oil tankers, ships departing from Iran have been “cloaking” their movements by turning off their AIS transponders that publicly geolocate vessels.
“Just two months ago we would spot, at most, 2-3 tankers cloak either the departure out of Iran or the arrival into, for example Syria. Fast forward to October [2018]and less than a handful of departures are publicly visible,” says Samir Madani who co-founded TankerTackers.com with Lisa Ward. Their techniques for tracking oil exports on tankers is increasingly important because they use satellite imagery to find tankers that have turned off their transponders. “During the first half of October, we were able to verify 2.2 million barrels per day over a 13 day period [leaving Iran], but some others only got slightly more than half that amount as they do not use tools such as satellite imagery.”
The US is seeking to push Iranian oil exports to near zero, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements in July. In September Pompeo said that the US would consider some waivers, but “our expectation that the purchases of Iranian crude oil will go to zero from every country or sanctions will be imposed.” Iran’s oil exports had reached 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd) in May, the highest since the Iran deal in 2015. May was also the month that US President Donald Trump announced the US was leaving the Iran deal. At the time around 1.8 million bpd was heading to Asian state customers. Washington has now threatened those importers, such as China, with sanctions. In August in September the US also sought to work with India, which imports oil from Iran.
In the leadup to the sanctions a complicated dance is taking place between Iran and its customers. For instance it is thought that Iran’s exports are declining below the 2.06 million bpd it was doing in August. China switched to using Iranian tankers as a way to sidestep sanctions, Reuters reported. The National Iranian Oil Co was also slashing prices.  The exports are supposed to slip even more to 700,000 bpd.
But Madani says that Iran is now one of the most complex countries to track shipments from. “We could track in a matter of minutes a day, but now it takes up the most part of the day on account of the vessels that cloak their movements by switching off their AIS transponders.” These devices locate the vessels and are used by sites that track ships. He says that these cloaking activities are increasing as the Brent price for crude oil reached $80 a barrel. That has now slipped to $76 a barrel this week. But Madani says the higher price “benefits Iran if the world thinks they’re shipping less than they are. The price goes up on account of a fear of fewer barrels out on the market, while their shipments remain steady.” The founders of Tanker Trackers used to do their work as a hobby, now with the stakes so high because of countries like Iran, it has become a career, Madani says.
As the tankers cloak their movements you’ll notice a tanker go in to port but not come out, the tracker says. Most of these are connected to the National Iranian Tanker Company, which is state owned and many fly a Panamanian flag. “So you wait another and still nothing. Then you look at the export terminal with a satellite and see the tanker’s no longer there.” But then it will pop up somewhere lese, such as off the east coast of the UAE. “Today, nearly  the entire fleet [trading with Iran] is working in this manner in order to throw off the trackers,” he notes. Madani gets data from a network of satellites that can provide daily data. He says that a lot has changed since the last time Iran was under sanctions. New technology can make it easier to track the tankers, but “they left quite an impression on us given the high level of care they place in avoiding detection.”
It is not clear at what level the cloaking of the ships is coordinated. “NITC coordinates all the directives of what vessels need to do. It is then the experience of each vessel captain to decide where and when to manipulate the AIS.” This can pose a safety risk in waters with many ships. Iran isn’t the only place where tankers are doing this. Madani notes that “as an exporter, they’re now hiding pretty much as many departures as Israel is hiding arrivals/imports from various countries.” He points to Russia, Angola, and others origins of oil that ends up in Israel in which some vessels carrying the oil cloak their movements.
As for Iran, the main recipients of oil tend to be China and India. Turkey also receives Iranian oil. The European Union, particularly Italy, Spain, Greece and Croatia imported 311,000 bpd recently. In addition data shows that the UAE imports “gas condensates while re-exporting crude oil.” Madani cautions against calling this an illicit trade in oil. “Our focus is on profiling the NITC tanker fleet as we track them visually by satellite when AIS is not available.”