London, Dubai, Panama City - Somewhere on its journey from the waters off Iran, around Africa’s southern tip and into the Mediterranean, the Grace 1 oil tanker lost the flag under which it sailed and ceased to be registered to Panama. Iran later claimed it as its own.
The ship carrying 2 million barrels of Iranian crude was seized by British Royal Marines off Gibraltar, raising tensions in the Gulf where Iran detained a UK-flagged ship in retaliation. Grace 1 remains impounded, not because of its flag but because it was suspected of taking oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, an allegation that Iran denies. Yet Panama’s move on May 29 to strike it from its register mid-voyage was part of a global squeeze on Iranian shipping.
Nations that register vessels under so-called “flags of convenience” allowing them to sail legally have de-listed dozens of tankers owned by Iran in recent months, tightening the economic noose around it. In the biggest cull, Panama, the world’s most important flag state, removed 59 tankers linked to Iran and Syria earlier this year, a decision welcomed by the United States which wants to cut off Tehran’s vital oil exports. Panama and some other key flag states are looking more closely at the thousands of ships on their registers to ensure they comply with U.S. sanctions that were re-imposed against Iran last year and tightened further since.