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Iran Oil Exports on the Rise, Despite Sanctions

VENEZUELA -- The Iranian oil tanker Fortune is anchored at the dock of El Palito refinery near Puerto Cabello, May 25, 2020

According to data collected from TankerTrackers, Iran has managed to increase its oil exports significantly in September despite U.S. sanctions, Reuters reports.

The independent online service reported that, "Iranian oil exports have risen sharply in September in defiance of U.S. sanctions, three assessments based on tanker tracking showed, throwing a lifeline to the Islamic Republic and its collapsing economy."

Since the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and unilaterally reimposed batches of economic sanctions on Iran in May 2018, Iran's crude oil exports have drastically dropped.

But information gathered by tanker tracking companies shows that Iran's oil exports are on the rise.

"Exports are way up right now. We are seeing close to 1.5 million barrels per day (BPD) in both crude and condensate this month,' Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers, told Reuters. "These are levels we haven't seen in a year and a half."

Oil tanker tracking data show that Iran's oil exports in September almost doubled compared to August, TankerTrackers data showed, and around 11 percent of the exports were ultra-light crude, known as condensate. Reuters could not independently verify the data. The range for August's exports is 300,000 to 750,000 BPD.

Data from TankerTrackers, which tracks shipments and oil storage, showed that nearly half of Iran's exports were picked up by foreign vessels via ship-to-ship transfers, making it difficult to determine final destinations.

Two other tanker tracking firms, which asked not to be named, told Reuters that their data also showed that Iran's oil exports had increased, but not as much as TankerTrackers' estimates.

One of the companies estimated that the increase in Iran's exports in September totaled about 100,000 BPD.

Before the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018, Iran's exports totaled about 2.7 million BPD, but fell to about 100 to 200 thousand barrels per day. As a result, even an increase of several hundred thousand barrels in Iran's daily export volume is a significant leap.

Iran's Ministry of Oil did not respond to Reuters' inquiry about the current volume of the country's oil exports.

Last week, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh defended the nation's efforts to increase oil exports despite U.S. sanctions, admitting that the documents related to oil sales were being forged to hide the Iranian origin of the crude oil shipments.

According to the Ministry of Oil website, Zanganeh told Majlis, the Islamic Republic's parliament, "What we export is not in the name of Iran. Export documents and shipment specifications are changed over and over again."

Meanwhile, satellite imagery has made it easier to track oil tankers, but it is still not easy to accurately assess each country's exports.

Changing the direction or volume of tanker shipments makes assessments difficult, and since the reimposition of the U.S. sanctions, the Iranian government has not provided accurate figures for its exports to OPEC, making it more challenging to estimate the country's exports.

Oil industry experts say Iranian oil tankers sometimes shut down their telecommunications messaging system, making tracking all the more difficult.