When a British security guard was killed in an Iranian drone attack last month, the response from the government was robust. Boris Johnson warned that Iran will have to ‘face up to the consequences’. But has the West fully grasped the reality of what Iran and its 'Ghost Armada' is really up to at sea? And how can Britain deal with Iran's silent partnership on the waves with China?
Back in March, the two countries signed a 25-year, £300 billion trade and military partnership which included Chinese investment in exchange for regular, heavily discounted oil and a strengthened cooperation between the military, security and defence departments. China is investing in Iran for the long haul because it is key to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More than £200 billion has already been spent on the project since 2013, with another trillion pounds anticipated within the next decade.
For China to build the BRI, Iran is indispensable. Situated between the Caspian Sea and Arabian Gulf, it is the only viable land bridge out of Central Asia for China. In other words, heavy investment in Iran can be the difference between China being a regional or global superpower.
Working at the behest of the Iranian leadership, a fleet of vessels has been assembled with the sole objective of breaching international sanctions barring foreign investments and exports of Iranian petroleum products. They have been ferrying black-market oil to willing buyers, predominantly China. Through these illegal transactions, Iran is pocketing vast amounts of foreign currency and building a war chest to withstand sanctions. At the same time, China is gaining a vital geopolitical foothold in the Middle East, something central to its own global ambitions.
For the past three years, specialist monitors at our organisation United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) have been tracking, and alerting governments to, the Ghost Armada’s growing activities. By cross-referencing commercial satellite photography with GPS systems that pinpoint the location of every ship at sea, they have scoped the size and capacity of Iran’s sanction-busting fleet. In some cases, vessels have been caught making an illegal transfer.
By observing the armada’s movements, UANI has uncovered a playbook of evasive tactics.
One is ‘spoofing’, where a tanker misrepresents its coordinates to appear at anchor at an innocuous location. Meanwhile, it secretly proceeds to an Iranian port to take on oil or engages in a ship-to-ship (STS) transfer at sea with a vessel from Iran’s National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC). There have also been cases documented of ships being repainted to appear different from above to disguise their identity on satellite imagery.
The Panama-flagged tanker Karo, for example, has picked up crude oil from Iran on three occasions since January 2021. In May 2021, UANI observed the vessel Karo anchored in Emirati waters on satellite imagery as a green decked very large crude carrier (VLCC) with a left helipad. A few days later, imagery showed the vessel being covered to look like it was a red decked tanker instead. On 6 May, UANI then observed the same tanker at Iran’s Kharg Island, with the deck almost completely covered to appear as if it was a different tanker.
Flag-hopping is another favoured strategy. Every merchant ship must be registered with a country which has the authority and responsibility to enforce international law. Vessels belonging to Iran’s Ghost Armada repeatedly switch flags, usually between small nations lacking the resources to properly police them. Such ‘flag hopping’ is often accompanied by the formation of new shell and front companies, ownership and name changes, and alterations to ships’ physical markings to make the job of tracking the ships even harder.
This cat and mouse game is allowing Iran to stay one step ahead of the law and defy sanctions. Take the crude oil tanker Amfitriti. In September last year, it lost its Cook Islands flag and changed its name to Anahi after being caught engaged in illicit petroleum transfers in contravention of sanctions. Later the same year, having reregistered in Zanzibar, it was caught again and stripped of that flag too. Yet on 11 July, the Anahi — still flying its Zanzibar flag — was spotted loading Iranian oil once more.
Iran's Ghost Armada is now estimated to be capable of carrying approximately 102 million barrels of crude or fuel oil and 11.8 million barrels of liquified petroleum gas at any time, a combined value of over £5.6 billion. The absence of a proper response by Western leaders has given Iran the confidence to grow its illicit maritime operation. In the past seven months, its Ghost Armada has almost doubled in size to 123 vessels. Its staggering capacity can satisfy a large proportion of global oil demand and fully absorb Iranian production capacity. If only one in every six Ghost Armada oil tankers successfully evade detection and complete a shipment each week, the regime in Tehran can exceed its peak pre-sanction export rate of 2.1 million barrels of oil per day.
Iran knows such serious breaches of international law risk souring relations with Western leaders, with whom they are trying to negotiate a new nuclear deal. But the gains currently make that risk worthwhile. China is by far the leading buyer of its black-market oil, having imported 700,000 barrels a day in the last six months. This is roughly half of what it takes to fuel the whole of Britain. During a peak month of trade in March, roughly one in every 15 barrels of oil imported by China took this illegal route.
The need for oil to fuel China's aggressive industrial expansion does not fully explain the deepening Iran/China ties. Iran serves another valuable purpose for Beijing: it is a powerful and antagonistic Islamic Republic that directly threatens Western security.
With Iran’s Ghost Armada generating unconditional financial support from China, Western attempts to exert pressures in order to stop them building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, or exporting terrorism, are being crippled. Not only must sanctions against Iran be maintained, but Britain, Europe and the US must finally enforce them.
Mark Wallace is the CEO of UANI and a former US Ambassador to the United Nations. Joe Lieberman is Chairman of UANI and a former US Senator