Iran: Shipwrecked in Asia
Image Credit: Jean-Pierre Bazard

Iran: Shipwrecked in Asia


The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that wreaked havoc in north-eastern Japan has again thrown the spotlight on an industry that has always struggled for public acceptance. But the nuclear danger is also a reminder of the threat posed by rogue states that harbour atomic ambitions, including Iran.

Undermining Iran’s nuclear programme remains near the top of the US foreign policy agenda, and a change in strategy by the United Nations Security Council — at Washington’s behest — is being felt far and wide, particularly in East Asia. And while the new approach may not grab many headlines, it’s already showing some useful results.

In an effort to halt Iran’s controversial efforts by choking off the supply of materials, international focus has shifted to financial services and the world’s shipping lanes, which deliver goods Tehran needs to continue developing its nuclear programme.

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Heading the list of targets is the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). The carrier boasts the biggest fleet in the Middle East, with about 170 vessels, but is struggling as banks foreclose on
mortgaged vessels, and as insurers refuse to underwrite the company’s operations.

IRISL ships were once a common sight in Asian ports, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and in the Malaccan Straits dividing Malaysia and Indonesia. Its ships were among the biggest and newest to ply the waterways, and mostly transported goods supplied by Chinese companies.

David Albright, a US nuclear physicist who inspected Iran’s nuclear facilities for the UN’s atomic energy agency, says China is key to Tehran’s nuclear designs as a supplier of high strength maraging steel, specialty vacuum pumps, Kevlar and carbon fibre.

‘Over and over, Iran goes there to buy things,’ Albright said after the United Nations imposed the latest round of sanctions against Iran in June last year.

The United States and its allies argue Iran’s nuclear programme is a cover for weapons development, and sanctions are credited with hindering Iranian efforts to acquire materials used in centrifuges to enrich uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Tehran, for its part, denies the allegations, saying its nuclear industry is for electricity generation and civilian use, although few in the international community believe them.

Regardless of Iranian intentions, sanctions recently came to a head in Singapore, where a sheriff’s sale of three IRISL ships was organized after the vessels were seized.

The courts later released the ships, after IRISL found the cash to meet calls on loan repayments, and Chairman Mohammad Hossein Dajmar went on the offensive, rebuking Singapore and the banks for impounding his ships. ‘We had a loan and (the banks) changed it from a loan to a due payment because of sanctions…they committed a violation because the loan contract was signed before the sanctions,’ he said.

He also told the Financial Times that sanctions hadn’t hurt the company, insisting revenue for the eight months from March 2010 was up 40 percent, while shipping transactions were up 25 percent.

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