Iran and Syria: AIS and sanctions


Published: 7 June 2019

The use of Automated Identification Systems has become a focus of attention in the context of sanctions and is now seen by governmental and inter-governmental agencies as an important tool in the enforcement of national and international sanctions.

Almost all ships in commercial operation are required to have AIS on board in order to comply with SOLAS Chapter V on Safety of Navigation Regulation 19. This equipment must of course not only be kept on board – it must also be used. Paragraph 2.4 of Regulation 19 provides that

"AIS shall be operated taking into account the guidelines adopted by the [International Maritime] Organization. Ships fitted with AIS shall maintain AIS in operation at all times except where international agreements, rules or standards provide for the protection of navigational information."

This is supplemented by IMO Guidelines adopted in 2015 which provide as follows:

22. AIS should always be in operation when ships are underway or at anchor. If the master believes that the continual operation of AIS might compromise the safety or security of his/her ship or where security incidents are imminent, the AIS may be switched off. Unless it would further compromise the safety or security, if the ship is operating in a mandatory ship reporting system, the master should report this action and the reason for doing so to the competent authority. Actions of this nature should always be recorded in the ship's logbook together with the reason for doing so. The master should however restart the AIS as soon as the source of danger has disappeared.

There are therefore very limited circumstances in which switching AIS off is permitted under SOLAS. There must be clear reasons for doing so which must be recorded in the log book and the AIS must be switched on again at the earliest opportunity. The authorities must be informed if the vessel is in an area subject to mandatory reporting.

Failure to comply SOLAS will generally amount to a breach of the term in the insurance policy requiring members to comply with all statutory requirements of the vessel's flag state. It may also amount to imprudent, unsafe, improper or unduly hazardous trading. There is therefore a clear risk that switching off AIS will prejudice P&I cover.

There may be innocent explanations for why an AIS signal cannot be detected, such as poor satellite coverage or adverse weather conditions. However government agencies are likely to regard as suspicious the lack of availability of an AIS signal in an area which is being closely monitored for sanctions purposes. There are also increasing expectations on insurers to monitor vessel movements. Owners can no longer operate in the mistaken belief that switching off an AIS transmitter provides an easy way of evading sanctions.

Iran and Syria

In March 2019 the US Treasury issued an OFAC Advisory to the Maritime Petroleum Shipping Community on Sanctions Risks Related to Petroleum Shipments involving Iran and Syria. The Advisory identifies a number of deceptive shipping practices including disabling AIS.

"While AIS was not specifically designed for vessel tracking, it is often used for this purpose via terrestrial and satellite receivers feeding this information to commercial ship tracking services. Ships meeting certain tonnage thresholds and engaged in international voyages are required to carry and operate AIS; however, vessels carrying petroleum to Syria have been known to intentionally disable their AIS transponders to mask their movements. This tactic can conceal the destination of cargo destined for the Government of Syria."

Although referring to Syria, these comments should also be taken into account in the context of US sanctions against Iran.

The Advisory also encourages insurers and others to include AIS monitoring as a risk mitigation measure for insurers and others.

"Ship registries, insurers, charterers, vessel owners, or port operators should consider investigating vessels that appear to have turned off their AIS while operating in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Any other signs of manipulating AIS transponders should be considered red flags for potential illicit activity and should be investigated fully prior to continuing to provide services to, processing transactions involving, or engaging in other activities with such vessels."