By MIKE EVANS
Tuvalu. It sounds faintly like a new sushi roll. It is, unfortunately, not that innocuous. Tuvalu is a nine-island nation in the Polynesian chain that sits midway between the Hawaiian Islands and Australia. It is a parliamentary democracy with a British-appointed governor-general and Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. It sounds too small and idealistic to be involved in world politics—but it is.
The tiny country has been courted and enlisted by Iran in an effort to circumvent the sanctions levied against the Muslim nation. The BBC has reported that 15 of Iran’s 39 petroleum tankers are now flying the Tuvalu flag. At last report two of those ships had been dispatched to Ain Sukhna on the Egyptian bank of the Suez Canal. As many as ten Iranian tankers now also sport the Tanzanian flag.
The charge against Tanzania was levied by Howard Berman, a member of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He has informed President Jakaya Kikwete that the tankers in question are owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company, and that Tanzania stands to face sanctions if the allegations prove to be true.
Using Tuvalu is not a new move for the Iranians. In order to avoid the sanctions affecting the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, Iran’s leaders have registered its fleet of tankers in Malta, Cyprus, and Hong Kong. Once discovered, those avenues were blocked. Now they are looking for other countries willing to risk the wrath of the US and EU.
Washington has little, if any, clout with Tuvalu. A 1988 treaty on fisheries contributes to Tuvalu’s revenue, but not significantly. It is thought by some that the decision to aid the Iranians may be a retaliatory move against those countries that have done little or nothing to curb global warming. The resulting rising seas generate fear that these island nations will be swamped.
One might wonder where the International Maritime Organization is in all of this game of hide-and-seek. It is charged with keeping a registry of every vessel, its serial number, and its country of registration. The identification numbers do not—or should not—change even if the flag flying on the ship’s bridge does. Transponders are required on every tanker to keep track of its location—a basic safety measure.
It should surprise no one that the largest maritime database worldwide, IHS Fairplay, reported that the Iranians have deactivated transponders in recent weeks. This presents a dual problem: the issue of tracking tankers carrying oil to countries not upholding the sanctions against Iran and not being able to track tankers that might be loaded with nuclear-armed missiles.
According to law Professor Bill Hodge at Auckland University in New Zealand, agreeing to help Iran avoid sanctions could place tiny Tuvalu in deep trouble, depending on which maritime laws and conventions it has signed. He notes that there are “international standards of worker protection, seamen’s protection, [and] international protection of the environment. What if there’s a discharge, accidental discharge, a leakage, what if they hit a rock somewhere in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Mexico…Is Tuvalu…answerable if there’s a breach by the people running the ships?”
Iran’s regime is running scared. The pinch in the pocketbook has sent its leaders to a poor, tiny island nation in the middle of nowhere. Desperation has set in—a sure sign that the effects of the sanctions are being felt. Tuvalu’s parliament may feel that the country is taking no gamble whether or not the sanctions imposed against Iran succeed or fail. It is, however, a member of the United Nations, and as such, has a responsibility to its other constituents. Perhaps Tuvalu’s leaders should consider how allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons, paid for by its oil revenue, would affect the entire world—them included.