To Evade Sanctions on Iran, Ships Vanish in Plain Sight

Last month, the Salina, an Iranian-flagged oil tanker under American sanctions, docked in Jinzhou Bay, a port in northeastern China, according to data from VesselsValue, a website that analyzes global shipping information. The Salina regularly reported its position, course and speed via the automatic identification system.

Oil tankers like the Salina, which can transport as much as a million barrels of crude, or about 5 percent of the daily consumption of the United States, are so big that they can call on only a limited number of ports. They are also more easily spotted by satellites than smaller ships like the Sino Energy 1.

That vessel, and its more than 40 sister ships, are far more difficult to track when they go off the grid. They were owned until April by a subsidiary of Sinochem, a state-owned company in China that is one of the world’s biggest chemical manufacturers.

Sinochem has extensive business ties in the United States. It has an office in Houston and works with big American companies including Boeing and Exxon Mobil. In March, it signed an agreement with Citibank to “deepen the partnership” between the two companies, Sinochem said. In 2013, a United States subsidiary of Sinochem bought a 40 percent stake in a Texas shale deposit for $1.7 billion.

In April, it sold a controlling share in its shipping fleet to a private company, Inner Mongolia Junzheng Energy & Chemical Group Co., whose biggest shareholder is Du Jiangtao, a Chinese billionaire who made his fortune in medical equipment, chemicals and coal-generated power.

A person answering the phone at Junzheng’s investor relations office was not familiar with the newly acquired shipping business. For now, Junzheng owns 40 percent of Sinochem’s former shipping fleet, with the rest owned by two Beijing companies.

Frank Ning, the chairman of Sinochem, speaking in a brief interview in Dalian, China, said that shipping had not been central to the company’s business. In a statement, the company said it had “adopted strict compliance policies and governance on export control and sanctions,” though a former employee who had helped manage the shipping business, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the company had shipped petrochemicals from Iran for years.