US to criminalise tanker owners for trading with Iran.
SHIPOWNERS of any nationality carrying refined petroleum products to Iran could soon find themselves deemed to have committed an offence under US law, even if that activity is entirely legal in their own jurisdiction.
The impact would amount to a ban on any tanker of any flag discharging in Iran, which has little refinery capacity of its own. Despite being the world"s fifth-largest oil exporter, it still has to import 40% of its petrol.
According to the latest edition of Standard Bulletin, a publication of the Standard P&I club, the legislation is so widely worded that owners, charterers, managers, crew, and insurance interests including P&I could all fall foul. The provision of insurance or reinsurance for those engaging in such trade is expressly prohibited.
International Group clubs are liaising with shipowner association to develop protective clauses for incorporation into charterparties and bills of lading in order to ensure that they avoid prosecution.
The risk is that if a club member carries a sanctioned cargo and thereby commits and illegal act, the P&I club would also be committing an illegal act, and may find itself unable to utilise American financial institutions for investment or banking. Coverage changes are inevitable as a result.
Feeling among US shipowners does not appear to be strong either way. Chamber of Shipping of America president Joe Cox said that his organisation was taking a neutral stance for the time being.
?We do not have any position on this. We have not brought it up to the membership for approval or disapproval,? he said.
But the obvious question is whether Washington can make any attempted embargo stick. Some analysts point out that there is no reason why shipping concerns from the larger emerging or transitional economies such as Russia, China or India and with no business ties to the US should comply.
Venezuela is allied with Iran, hostile to Washington and in possession of major refineries. That the Obama administration disapproves of petroleum sales to Iran simply comes as an added bonus.
The US Senate last month unanimously approved the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2009, although under the US political system, there are a number of hurdles still to jump before it comes into force.
Crucially, it has to reconcile the Act with the similar but not identical Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, carried in the House of Representatives by a vote of 412 to 12 in December, and then present it to president Barack Obama for signature. Lobbyists for interests directly affected are likely to push for changes to soften the outcome.
As things stand, the bill provides for sanctions against persons who, with actual knowledge, provide Iran with refined petroleum resources, or help Iran enhance its ability to import them. This includes the provision of ships, shipping services, insurance or reinsurance.
One person who is following developments, but who asked not to be named, said: ?Basically what [the US] is doing is saying that anybody involved in this trade will be illegal under US law, and anybody facilitating it or having anything to do with it will also be committing a crime. They are using the usual massive sledgehammer to tackle what they see as a problem.?
Any such law will be widely seen as an another attempt by the US to make its legislation apply beyond its borders, as exemplified by the Helms-Burton Act penalising foreign companies doing business in Cuba, and its desire for 100% scanning of containers at ports of export.
Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, Iran"s main shipping line, is already subject to restrictions in several jurisdictions, including the US, the UK and Bermuda, which have already cost it P&I cover twice in the last year.