Washington warns HK of tanker carrying Iran oil amid choke bid

Top News | REUTERS and STAFF REPORTER 30 May 2019

Washington has warned Hong Kong to be on alert for a vessel carrying Iranian petroleum that may seek to stop in the Asia financial hub, and said any entity providing services to the vessel will be violating US sanctions.

The news comes a month after US President Donald Trump's administration stepped up moves to choke off Iran's oil exports by scrapping waivers it had granted to big buyers of Iranian crude oil, including China.

The fully laden Pacific Bravo abruptly changed course on Monday to head toward Sri Lanka, according to shipping data on Refinitiv Eikon. The vessel had earlier identified Indonesia as its intended destination, according to ship-tracking data, but industry sources said it is most likely going to China.

Late on Tuesday evening, the tanker sailed away from Sri Lanka toward the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping lane toward East Asia, although its AIS destination was still set as Sri Lanka.

A ship's crew manually enters AIS destination settings and there can be a delay in updates while the vessel is at sea.

"Anyone who does business with this ship, the Pacific Bravo, would be exposing themselves to US sanctions," a senior American official said.

The Pacific Bravo is owned by China's Bank of Kunlun, the official said. The bank has been the main official channel for money flows between China and Iran since before the last round of sanctions began in 2012. It is majority-owned by China National Petroleum Corp's listed financial arm, CNPC Capital.

China is the top buyer of Iranian oil and nearly all its oil payments go through Kunlun, which was established in 2006 as a city commercial bank in Karamay, an oil-producing hub in Xinjiang region.

A spokesperson for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said Hong Kong has been strictly implementing sanctions on Iran decided by the United Nations Security Council. The council has not imposed any restrictions on the export of petroleum from Iran, he added.

"Certain countries may impose unilateral sanctions against certain places on the basis of their own considerations. Those sanctions are outside the scope of the UN Security Council sanctions implemented by the HKSAR," he said.

Earlier this month, a tanker carrying Iranian fuel oil in violation of US sanctions unloaded the cargo into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

Washington reintroduced sanctions against Iran's oil industry in November but allowed some buyers limited purchases of Iranian crude oil under a waiver program until May 1.

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