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US sanctions Cook Islands-flagged ships aiding Iranian drone shipment to Russia

Thursday 2 May 2024 | Written by Rashneel Kumar | Published in Local, National


US sanctions Cook Islands-flagged ships aiding Iranian drone shipment to Russia
Cook Islands-flagged vessel CHEM (IMO 9240914).

Three Cook Islands-flagged vessels have been sanctioned by the United States for their involvement in the shipment of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Moeroa Mamanu-Matheson, co-chief executive officer and registrar of ships at Maritime Cook Islands, told Cook Islands News that they were aware of the sanctions.

“Yes, we are aware of this and steps will be taken to remove the vessels from the Cook Islands flag as these have been listed on the OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) sanctions list,” Mamanu-Matheson said.

The US Department of Treasury last week said it has sanctioned over one dozen entities, individuals, and vessels that have played a central role in facilitating and financing the clandestine sale of Iranian UAVs for Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which itself is involved in supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Among those sanctioned were five vessels, three of which are registered under Maritime Cook Islands.

In a statement, Treasury said Iranian military entity Sahara Thunder relied on a vast shipping network involved in the sale and shipment of Iranian commodities on behalf of MODAFL to multiple jurisdictions including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and Venezuela.

Sahara Thunder has entered into time-charter contracts with India-based Zen Shipping and Port India Private Limited for the Cook Islands-flagged vessel CHEM (IMO 9240914), which is managed and operated by UAE-based Safe Seas Ship Management FZE.

“Sahara Thunder has used the CHEM to conduct multiple shipments of commodities since 2022,” the statement said.

Iran-based Arsang Safe Trading Co. has also provided ship management services in support of several Sahara Thunder-related shipments, including those by the CHEM.

Safe Seas Ship Management FZE also manages and operates the Palau-flagged DANCY DYNAMIC (9158161), Cook Islands-flagged K M A (9234616), and Cook Islands-flagged CONRAD (9546722), “all of which have been used to ship Iranian commodities”.

According to the Treasury statement, MODAFL has cooperated with Russia to finance and produce Iranian-designed one-way attack UAVs at the U.S.-sanctioned Joint Stock Company Special Economic Zone of Industrial Production Alabuga (SEZ Alabuga) facility in Russia under a US$1.75 billion contract.

As of late 2022, Russian officials were negotiating a deal for Sahara Thunder to deliver and produce thousands of UAVs per year at this facility.

“Such UAVs have been used by the Russian military in Ukraine against critical infrastructure and civilian targets.”

Concurrent with the United States’ action, the statement added that the United Kingdom and Canada were also imposing sanctions targeting several entities and individuals involved in Iran’s UAV procurement and other military-related activities, respectively.

“The United States will continue to hold Iran accountable for its transfer of UAVs and other dangerous military hardware to Russia and to regional proxies.”

In December last year, Maritime Cook Islands confirmed that three vessels had been stripped of the country’s flag between January 2020 and April 2021 following suggestions that Cook Islands-registered vessels were linked to North Korean “smuggling networks”.

However, Mamanu-Matheson then said that these vessels were not linked to North Korea.

“Cook Islands abide by UN Sanctions and any vessels found to be involved in sanctions evasions are removed from the Cook Islands flag,” Mamanu-Matheson told Cook Islands News in December.

“MCI continues to review and ensure a stringent vetting process through utilising internationally recognised maritime vetting platforms as well as the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Search List.”

In a bid to make the ship registration process more stringent, MCI established a department in 2021 that deals exclusively with Customer Due Diligence (CDD) and Know Your Client (KYC).

Mamanu-Matheson earlier said that once registered, the vessels are monitored through long-range identification and tracking, and automatic notifications are received if any of them enter specific set areas potentially connected to sanctions evasion activities.

“MCI is also a member of the Registry Information Sharing Compact (RISC) from 2020. The RISC creates a process for flag states to notify each other if they de-register, or deny registration to, a merchant ship on suspicion that it is in breach of sanctions, including violations of the UN Security Council Resolutions.”


graham roper on 02/05/2024

Who receives the money for registering "Cook Island flagged vessels?"