- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2018

Iranian “ghost tankers” are dismantling their vessel tracking systems upon leaving the Strait of Hormuz in a bid to sell oil secretly around the world as Tehran braces for the Trump administration to reimpose harsh sanctions on its energy sector.

Over the weekend, reports surfaced that an Iranian supertanker, Happiness I, which has a cargo capacity of about 2 million barrels of oil, left Iran for China’s largest northeastern oil terminal, the Port of Dalian, in early September but has since stopped broadcasting its position at sea, according to MarineTraffic.com.

The ship is one of at least seven tankers carrying Iranian oil that have gone rogue, The Financial Times has reported, in what appears to be a move by Tehran to sidestep upcoming sanctions by hiding the identity of its buyers and “reverting to an old playbook of selling [oil] in secret” as Iran did to evade past trading embargoes.

Reports of the “ghost ships” come as President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were both in New York for the annual United Nations gathering. U.S. officials say they are ramping up pressure on allies and adversaries alike with a goal of shutting down all Iranian oil and gas exports by Nov. 4, following Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the international nuclear accord with Tehran in May.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s address to the world body is expected to focus heavily on Iran and the threat he says the Islamic Republic poses to Middle Eastern stability through its support for proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to host a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that was originally scheduled to focus on Iran but has since been broadened to a discussion of nonproliferation.

Over the weekend Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Mr. Trump is willing to meet his Iranian counterpart.

“He’s happy to talk with folks at any time,” Mr. Pompeo told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “The president’s been pretty clear about that” he added, explaining that it would be up to Mr. Rouhani to reach out.

Mr. Rouhani also did not rule out talks, but a change in U.S. policy will be needed first.

“If Trump wants to talk to Iran, then he should return to the nuclear deal first,” Mr. Rouhani told reporters in New York.

But he also lashed out at Washington for trying to stop Tehran from exporting oil, calling it a “very dangerous” move.

Since withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 Obama-era nuclear agreement with Tehran in May, the Trump administration has reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Even harsher penalties are set to start on November 4, punishing countries who buy Iranian oil by blocking their access to U.S. markets and financial institutions. Iranian oil exports have already plunged about 35 percent since April, a painful cut in revenues when Tehran is facing popular protests over the economy and a currency now trading at or near historic lows.

Some Iranian oil buyers, such as South Korea and France, have halted their purchases completely while China and India, the biggest buyers of Iranian crude, are now buying far fewer barrels.

Speaking in Tehran, Iran’s oil minister predicted that the U.S. embargo will fail, even while acknowledging South Korea has stopped buying Iranian oil.

Bijan Zanganeh said the “U.S. dream of getting Iran’s oil exports to zero won’t come true,” according to the oil ministry’s website.

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