The United States is working with the private sector and making use of advanced commercial technologies to prevent Iranian maritime evasion of international sanctions and other illicit, criminal or terrorist activities.
US-designated entities include the National Iranian Oil Company, Iran's Petroleum Ministry and the National Iranian Tanker Company, along with multiple front companies, subsidiaries and executives.
All three have been linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which the United States has designated as a terrorist organisation.
With sanctions imposed on oil exports, Iran is having a hard time finding international buyers and has stepped up its efforts to smuggle crude.
Iran has in the past circumvented sanctions on its oil by 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).
Such tactics have included using vessels that operate under the flags of other countries, as well as engaging in ship-to-ship cargo transfers in open water and in attempts to conceal oil exports among other types of cargo or to hide the oil's origins.
Other deceptive practices include tampering with or deactivating a ship's automatic identification system (AIS) -- a collision avoidance system that continuously transmits a vessel's location at sea -- so its route "goes dark".
Private sector co-operation
The United States has been working with private companies to prevent sanctions evasions and thereby the funneling of funds to the IRGC-QF.
The US Treasury Department, Coast Guard and State Department in May 2020 issued a global advisory to alert the maritime industry and energy and metals sectors to deceptive shipping practices used to evade sanctions.
The advisory, focused on Iran, Syria and North Korea, highlights common deceptive shipping practices these countries have used to avoid sanctions.
It sought to provide the maritime industry with information and tools "to counter current and emerging trends in sanctions evasion related to shipping and associated services", according to a Treasury statement.
The advisory also offered a set of best practices for private industry to consider in mitigating their exposure to sanctions risk.
The Treasury directed the advisory toward shipowners, managers, operators, brokers, ship chandlers, flag registries, port operators, shipping companies, freight forwarders, classification service providers, commodity traders, insurance companies and financial institutions.
The actions of companies affiliated with the IRGC may place other companies at risk, according to Iranian affairs researcher Sheyar Turko.
Some companies and port operators may find themselves facing secondary sanctions for providing logistical support and fuel to Iranian ships and tankers at regional ports, he warned.
Companies that help Iran evade sanctions in pursuit of profit may have trouble concealing their actions, as the US government has a variety of commercial tools used to monitor illegal shipping and sanctions evasion at its disposal.
This include high-quality synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery that customers use to create two-dimensional images or three-dimensional reconstructions of objects.
It can capture images at night or through clouds and smoke.
Individual SAR satellites form a constellation that provides different angle imaging multiple times a day, according to a company website.
The constellation allows "quick tactical acquisitions as well as very frequent global revisit rates", it says.
Maritime intelligence and maritime artificial intelligence (AI) services are other options.
AI-driven software tracks "every large vessel at sea across the planet and pairs that information with databases on ship ownership, vessel registrations and past journeys," Fortune.com reported earlier this year.
"The software can suss out suspicious behaviour as well as identify ships with poor safety and maintenance records," according to the report.