Until 2012, the leaders of the National Iranian Tanker Company relished their work, playing cat and mouse with the Western authorities as they tried to keep a portion of their fleet on the seas despite an array of economic sanctions.
“We felt like the last line of defense of the country’s economy,” said Nasrollah Sardashti, the company’s commercial director. “The nation depended on us to get the oil out to the few markets we had left.”
Back then, Iran cavalierly dismissed Western sanctions, saying the obstacles that the measures sought to erect were easily evaded. But beginning in 2012, when a new round of comprehensive sanctions took effect, commerce with much of the world was choked. Suddenly, the tanker company found itself struggling to get Iranian oil out.
Hours after the most-restrictive sanctions were lifted this month as part of a recent nuclear deal, Mr. Sardashti, wearing a light-blue suit, entertained hundreds of foreign guests, mostly Europeans, as shipbrokers, insurers and journalists celebrated the company’s 60th anniversary.
“We are in close contact with our Foreign Ministry,” said Mr. Sardashti, explaining how the party could be arranged on such short notice. “We told our contacts: ‘Come. Come to Iran. The sanctions will be lifted right before our party.’ We were lucky. It happened.”
Parties and business conferences are happening with greater frequency in Iran today, particularly where European companies are concerned. That point was made clear in President Hassan Rouhani’s trip to Europe this week, where commercial ties were front and center.
In many ways, though, the celebration for the National Iranian Tanker Company, known as N.I.T.C., was more of a reunion than a session to get acquainted, as the global shipping industry welcomed back a partner — not from bankruptcy, but from one of the strictest set of sanctions ever.
For decades, the company, which owns 69 oil tankers, shipped crude around the world for almost all of the oil majors and producers. Its English-speaking members of staff were in daily contact with brokers in all of the major financial markets, proud of the company’s high standards and excellent reputation in a highly competitive industry.
“We really missed them on the market,” said Edwin Remeeus, a team leader at Vopak, a shipping agent based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, that also stores and handles crude oil and natural gas. Vopak was forced to sever ties with N.I.T.C. in 2012, after having been its agent for over 30 years.
“Every year, they would send us Christmas cards,” Mr. Remeeus said. “You’d think they would be upset, but they understood it wasn’t personal.”
In 2012, the United States Treasury Department identified 58 of the company’s vessels and 27 of its corporate affiliates as extensions of the Iranian state, and it threatened actions against Western companies that used any of those services.
For N.I.T.C., business, long solid, unraveled in a couple of months. First, insurers started excusing themselves, saying that they could no longer work with the Iranian company. Major oil companies including Royal Dutch Shell, Total of France and Repsol of Spain, all longtime clients, said they needed to clear payments before giving new orders, but they complained that banks were preventing them from doing so.
At N.I.T.C. headquarters here, committees were formed to devise ways around the sanctions. First, they changed insurers, using local brokers instead, but their foreign clients refused to deal with them. Then Malta, one of the most accommodating flags to sail under, cut ties, and the company had trouble finding new partners. At first it worked with the microstate of Tuvalu, and it eventually reflagged the entire fleet under Tanzania, widely regarded as a substandard “flag of convenience.”
The ships’ names were also changed, dropping references to their country of origin. The Iran Astaneh became Neptune, the Iran Damavand just Damavand. Before long, the pride of the Iranian fleet was sailing under names like Amber, Horizon and Success.
Iran was accused of other, more nefarious methods of avoiding detection, like turning off signaling systems on its vessels and making ship-to-ship transfers while at sea.
Mr. Sardashti did not want to go into details, but he dismissed the whole period under sanctions as “unfair” and “mean.”
“We had to change our standards; it was painful,” he recalled, adding that he was grateful for the countries and companies that had been willing to help N.I.T.C. in those tough times. But even so, he acknowledged, “gradually, we lost our biggest clients.”
The government started meddling with the company, and many industry insiders were surprised when Hamid Behbahani, a former minister of roads and transportation, was appointed chief executive — even though he had been impeached for falsifying a university degree. He was replaced after a year by Ali-Akbar Safaei, who is still at the helm.
In 2014, when the company was exclusively serving China and five other Asian nations still buying some Iranian oil — limited sales were allowed under the sanctions — it had a glimmer of success when a European Union court ruled that the sanctions against the company were illegal. Still, until the sanctions were lifted, N.I.T.C. gained no new customers.
On Saturday, Iran made its first oil sale to a European company since the sanctions were lifted. But Mr. Sardashti said he had not yet received a call from the buyer, Hellenic Petroleum, to ship it to Greece. When he does, he says, he will have plenty of oil at hand. With the current global oil glut, several of his tankers are being used as floating storage, waiting for buyers.
So far, though, not a single ship had set sail for Europe. “We are waiting for our first assignment,” Mr. Sardashti said.
At the celebration for the company’s 60th anniversary, everybody appeared to want to look ahead, not to dwell on unpleasant developments like the collapse in oil prices or dwindling demand. Over a lunch of rice with saffron, stews flavored with pomegranate and walnuts, and kebabs, smiling N.I.T.C. officials sat with their Western guests, showing cellphone pictures of their now-grown children and talking about business.
“We all hoped that one day the sanctions would be gone,” said Wictor Mansson of the shipping company Affinity in London. “Other companies picked up their share, but in the end we have less tonnage to transport the oil, so their return might push prices down.”
Some obstacles remain, however. Despite sanctions being lifted, financing has been slowed by international banks’ fears of penalties from the United States Treasury Department over sanctions it imposed decades ago for Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism.
“All our crews have been updated, our standards are still high, we are ready for business,” Mr. Sardashti said. “Now, we hope the others are, too.” (nytimes.com)