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July 27, 2012 – Inmarsat, Israeli Group Spar over Iranian Oil Tanker Links

PARIS — Allegations by an Israeli legal group that mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat is selling prohibited communications to Iranian government-controlled oil tankers and other ships has once again raised the issue of the liability limits of a satellite operator with a global customer base whose identity is often not disclosed.

In a July 25 letter to London-based Inmarsat, Tel Aviv-based Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center said Inmarsat is continuing to provide mobile satellite links to vessels that have been identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as owned or controlled by Iranian interests.

The U.S. government has imposed a series of sanctions against commercial dealings with Iran, but has not been able to win United Nations support for the policy.

Instead, the U.S. government is attempting to widen the circle of nations applying the sanctions to individuals or companies within their borders. That includes most of Western Europe.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on July 12 added a list of vessels it said are acting directly or indirectly on behalf of Iranian government and commercial interests, in violation of the U.S. sanctions.

On July 19, OFAC issued a specific “global advisory” to the maritime industry, saying the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines is continuing to operate vessels whose flags have been removed as the sanctions grip has tightened.

Many of the vessels listed on OFAC’s July 12 list are registered not in Iran but in Malta, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. The U.S. government then applies pressure to these administrations. For example, on June 25, Sierra Leone agreed to remove its flag — equivalent to revoking its regulatory protection — from the Irano-Hind Shipping Co. vessel Amin, OFAC said in its July 19 advisory.

Some 28 vessels carry Inmarsat communications gear figure on the OFAC list.

In a July 26 interview, Israel Law Center Director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said it appears that some of these vessels are using state-of-the-art communications gear, facilitating their attempts to slip through the embargo’s net to deliver Iranian oil to customers, or to purchase goods.

“The evidence is very clear,” Darshan-Leitner said. “Despite the sanctions, Inmarsat continues to provide satcom services. They are not supposed to deliver any service at all under the sanctions — not even emergency services.”

In a July 26 interview, Inmarsat spokesman Christopher McLaughlin said the company had performed a thorough analysis of the ships listed in the Treasury Department’s update and determined that none of them is using Inmarsat’s broadband service.

These newer services, including Fleet BroadBand, permit Inmarsat to identify users by their subscriber identity module (SIM) card numbers, giving Inmarsat a more direct insight into their customer base even as Inmarsat remains a wholesale provider.

McLaughlin said some of these ships nonetheless appear to be using older Inmarsat gear, but that Inmarsat — by virtue of its history as an international treaty organization — is not informed as to the identity of the customers.

Inmarsat is bound by its convention to provide, without discrimination, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) service to vessels worldwide. These are low-throughput signals designed to provide ship-to-shore emergency calls, a service that Inmarsat inherited a decade ago when it transitioned from an intergovernmental organization into the current private-sector corporation.

In the interview, Darshan-Leitner appeared to agree that GMDSS service falls into a special category, especially given the United Nations’ refusal, up to now, to endorse the current suite of sanctions promoted by the United States and its allies.

But Inmarsat mini-M and Fleet communications are among the communications assets on board the OFAC list — a clear transgression of the sanctions effort, Darshan-Leitner said.

McLaughlin said these “heritage services” were contracted and installed at a time when Inmarsat did not order its distribution partners to identify each and every customer. Inmarsat has been modifying its business model in recent years, notably by purchasing one of its largest distributors, but is still unable to identify with precision, ship by ship, what SIM card is activated where.

“For mini-M, Fleet, Inmarsat B and our other older services, we cannot get that far down into the service provider structure,” McLaughlin said. “But I can tell you we have been through the whole list of ships and none of them are carrying our broadband services.

In a July 26 written response to Space News inquiries, Inmarsat said: “Inmarsat (Inmarsat plc, Inmarsat Global Ltd. and Inmarsat Inc.) seeks to comply with all applicable sanctions laws and regulations. Inmarsat does not sell telecommunications services to any Iranian entity, or to any entity on the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control list of Specially Designated Nationals.

“Inmarsat was founded in 1979 as the International Maritime Satellite Organization, a non-profit, intergovernmental organization established by United Nations Convention to provide maritime communications for distress and safety of life at sea communications. The Convention required Inmarsat to make its services available for the ‘benefit of ships of all nations.’

“In 1999, the intergovernmental organization was privatized, creating Inmarsat plc. As a condition to its privatization, Inmarsat was required to continue its ‘public service obligations’ to ‘ensure the continuity of maritime satellite distress and safety communications services’ for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System … established by the U.N. Inmarsat was again required to provide safety communications services for all ships ‘without discrimination on the basis of nationality.’ In turn, all cargo and passenger ships above a certain tonnage must carry a terminal for GMDSS. Inmarsat is the sole satellite provider of GMDSS.”