The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has flouted international sanctions imposed on Iran to ship oil, with catastrophic consequences for the Iranian economy and potentially for the region's public health, say analysts.
The covert arrival and departure of Iran-linked vessels at key ports in the region, including the Emirati hub of Fujairah, have fuelled speculation and fears that the ships' crews may be contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.
A number of provinces in southern Iran, where key ports are situated, are in red or orange zones owing to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Doctors have observed several strains of the novel coronavirus among patients in Khuzestan, according to health officials in the province.
Earlier this week, Iran's Health Ministry reported that Hormozgan province has seen a 50% increase in COVID-19 hospitalisations over the past week.
Last year, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Iranian regime tasked the IRGC with managing the outbreak, allocating it large amounts of money.
The Iranian government and the IRGC have faced widespread criticism for their mismanagement of the pandemic and for their discriminatory and chaotic vaccine administration strategies.
Their failure to prevent the further spread of the virus and the disorderly and discriminatory distribution of vaccines have been a source of concern in the region, as oil tankers and freighters leave Iranian ports.
Iran's southern ports "are of strategic importance to the IRGC", said Iranian human rights activist Haider Hameedi.
"They are the conduits through which it smuggles oil and other material, without adhering to preventive measures in order to limit the spread of the pandemic," he said.
Iran has succeeded in circumventing sanctions on its oil using a range of evasive tactics to funnel oil to buyers in China, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere, according to a May 11 report by the Middle East Institute (MEI).
"The Gulf's complex regional oil market has facilitated these tactics," it said. "Iran has cleverly exploited the Gulf's crowded shipping lanes and labyrinths of production facilities and trading hubs to obfuscate and conceal the origin of its oil."
Its methods include ship-to-ship transfers and the blending of Iranian crude cargoes with bulk cargoes of other countries, the MEI report said.
Iran also controls vessels that operate under the flags of other countries.
Last August, four vessels, among them the Ekaterina, were stripped of their flags following an investigation into allegations they secretly transported Iranian oil in defiance of sanctions, according to the Vesseltracker website.
"The ships all made covert visits to Iranian waters in 2020 where they collectively picked up millions of barrels of oil," Vesseltracker said.
"The trips were part of a complex operation performed by Iranian and foreign vessels, in which ships manipulated their tracking data to hide their involvement in flouting US sanctions," it said.
Links to Quds Force
The National Iranian Oil Company, Iran's Petroleum Ministry and the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) are under US sanctions, along with multiple front companies, subsidiaries and executives affiliated with those organisations.
All three have been linked to the IRGC's Quds Force, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organisation.
NITC has been entirely controlled by IRGC-owned or -affiliated businesses for more than a decade, according to Fathi al-Sayed, an Iranian affairs specialist at the Middle East Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.
"Consequently, the general policy of this company is in line with the IRGC's aims and plans, especially with regard to financing, circumvention of international sanctions and smuggling of goods," he said.
"This policy has deepened Iran's political predicament, increased its isolation regionally and internationally, and exacerbated the financial crisis afflicting the Iranian treasury," he added.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) represents Iran's maritime fleet, with subsidiaries operating under its banner that own numerous ships, totaling more than 100 containers and oil tankers," al-Sayed said.
The most notable of these subsidiaries are Khazar, al-Fajr and the Iranian-Indian Company, he said.
The IRISL also is under sanctions imposed by the US Treasury.
"Their reckless violation of ... the sanctions will expose them to additional sanctions, which will exacerbate the financial crisis the Iranian economy is experiencing," he said.