What does the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu have to do with efforts to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon?
Quite a lot, it turns out. As the United States and its allies restrict Iran's ability to ship and sell its oil around the world, the Iranians have turned to the Pacific island nation of 11,000 for help.
According to the BBC, 15 of Iran's 39 oil tankers are now flying the Tuvaluan flag. Two are currently sailing in the Red Sea, heading towards Ain Sukhna on Egypt's Suez bank.
Another six to 10 Iranian tankers have started flying the Tanzanian flag, according to Howard Berman, the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Berman recently warned Tanzania it could face U.S. sanctions if it continued to allow its flag to be flown on Iranian ships. "This action by your government has the effect of assisting the Iranian regime in evading U.S. and EU sanctions and generating additional revenues for its nuclear enrichment and weapons research program and its support for international terrorism," Berman said in a letter to President Jakaya Kikwete.
Washington may have less leverage over tiny Tuvalu, although it does contribute to that nation's revenue because of payments from a 1988 treaty on fisheries.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Tuvalu is a scattered group of nine coral atolls with poor soil, no known mineral resources and few exports. Subsistence farming and fishing are the primary economic activities. Fewer than 1,000 tourists, on average, visit annually.
Tuvalu is deeply worried about global warming and threatened by rising sea levels and may feel that the rest of the world is ignoring its concerns by failing to agree on an international pact to curb greenhouse gases.
Reflagging tankers is a ploy the Iranians have tried before. Two years ago, when sanctions were imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), it re-registered the fleet under English names and with flags from Malta, Cyprus and Hong Kong to conceal their link to the blacklisted company. Those avenues are now apparently blocked.
It should be possible for the international community to keep track of Iranian tankers no matter what flags they are flying. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) says that every vessel is given a serial number when it is registered and that number does not change even if the flag does.
Tankers are also required to have their transponders on as they sail which gives their location, an elementary safety precaution. However, shipping expert Richard Hurley, a maritime data specialist at IHS Fairplay, told the BBC that Iranian tankers have in recent weeks been frequently turning their transponders off.
Professor Bill Hodge, Professor of Law at New Zealand's Auckland University, told Radio Australia Tuvalu could find itself in all kinds of unanticipated trouble by agreeing to help Iran break the sanctions.
"I'd be interested to know to what extent will Tuvalu insist on adherence to international standards, international standards of worker protection, seamen's protection, international protection of the environment, what if there's a discharge, accidental discharge, a leakage, what if they hit a rock somewhere in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Mexico, wherever, there are standards that international organizations have been putting place. Is Tuvalu a signatory to all of those conventions, and if so are they answerable if there's a breach by the people running the ships?"
The fact that Iran has been forced to turn to Tuvalu to re-flag its ships shows how desperate the Tehran regime is becoming. Tuvalu may feel it has no stake in whether or not the sanctions succeed - but as a member of the United Nations it has the duty and obligation to be a responsible member of the world community. Sanctions remain the best way of avoiding military action to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons. Everyone has a stake in that.
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