The Pacific Bravo, Iranian oil and the 14 Other Vessels Doing the Same

This is the story of the Pacific Bravo. You know – the 18-year old, Liberian-flagged VLCC oil tanker reportedly carrying Iranian oil, in breach of U.S. sanctions. It was said to be bound for Hong Kong, but is now sailing due southeast off the west coast of Indonesia.

Screenshot showing the location of Pacific Bravo on June 2, 2019. Source: Windward

It’s caused a bit of a stir because it would appear to be the first tanker to pick up Iranian crude since the U.S. turned the screws on the Islamic Republic’s oil exports last month.

But that’s not the only reason. For a start, the case of the Pacific Bravo is unprecedented. What we’re seeing is an oil tanker that’s not on any watch list and has never officially docked in Iran effectively being designated as being in breach of U.S. sanctions while it’s still in transit.

It all comes down to the vessel’s behavioral patterns, which, in the Pacific Bravo’s case, have been around for several months. On this occasion, the vessel was en route to the Iraqi oil terminal of Basrah, before going dark on May 11. It reappeared six days later.

The Pacific Bravo went dark on May 11 for five days, indicated by yellow triangle. Source: Windward

But we know it couldn’t have gone to Basrah: our analysis of other vessel transmissions show all the oil berths there were full. Then there’s the smoking gun – satellite images showing a vessel of the same length and superstructure as the Pacific Bravo loading oil on Iran’s Kharg Island while “dark” – i.e. without transmitting its location. Note the similarity with another image taken on May 17, showing the Pacific Bravo shortly after it resumed transmissions, before heading out of the Gulf on its current voyage.

A tanker with characteristics of Pacific Bravo docked at Iran’s Kharg Island oil terminal. Courtesy, Planet
Pacific Bravo after resuming transmission. Image Source: Planet

What’s more, the Pacific Bravo has form. This is actually the third time we’ve spotted the vessel carrying out this pattern in the past four months. It’s not alone: our analysis shows that between April and May, 14 other crude tankers followed a similar pattern on at least 23 separate occasions. That means there may be many more parties at risk than just the ones involved with the Pacific Bravo and the probable buyer of its cargo of allegedly Iranian oil.

Screenshot showing last transmitted location of vessels involved in ‘oil laundering’ – each circle represents a dark activity. Source: Windward.

In truth, Pacific Bravo’s card was already marked some time ago, due to a number of activities, including: changes in identity, flag and ownership, as well as uneconomic and dark activity.

Indeed, the Windward system ranked Pacific Bravo as one of the world’s top 2% high-risk vessels for illicit activities.

Banks, oil traders and bunkering service providers don’t usually get a heads-up. Yet recent advisories by the U.S Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, mean it’s incumbent upon all parties in the maritime supply-chain to screen vessels for deceptive shipping practices, such as AIS manipulation. Doing this as part of their vessel behavior due-diligence goes far beyond the current practice of screening ships against lists and port calls

Yael Abraham Regev is a Pre-Sales Manager at Windward

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