Netanyahu's Office Denies Israeli Firm Had Permission to Trade With Iran

At least 13 of the Ofer Brothers Group's ships docked in the Islamic Republic over last decade, despite Israel's ban on any commercial dealings with Iran.

The Prime Minister's Office denied Sunday the claim by the Ofer Brothers Group that its ships had been authorized by Israeli security sources to anchor in Iranian ports. The PMO said this claim "is not correct."

According to the border-control registers of Equasis, a major shipping information database, the tanker Raffles Park (now named Emma ), anchored in Iran several times in 2002, while owned by Tanker Pacific Management, an Ofer subsidiary. The U.S. State Department says the Ofers sold the ship to Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines - IRISL.

Ofer Brothers

According to Equasis, at least 13 ships belonging to Tanker Pacific have anchored in Iran over the past decade. The ports where the ship anchored include Bandar-Abbas, in southern Iran, and Kharg Island, which is used for exporting petroleum from Iran.

The ships anchored in those ports starting in 2002, even though Iran is defined as an enemy state and any contact with it, including commercial dealings, is forbidden.

The story broke last week when the U.S. State Department announced that sanctions had been imposed on the Ofer Brothers Group and Tanker Pacific because of their commercial dealings with Iran.

The violation occurred with the alleged sale of Raffles Park by the Ofer Brothers Group to Crystal Shipping, which in turn sold it to IRISL.

The State Department says the Ofer group should have checked for links between Iran and the company that bought the tanker. In this way, it could have avoided the transaction.

For its part, the Ofer group said "we never sold ships to Iran, and the State of Israel's official and authorized bodies will confirm our statement." No official Israeli source has yet stepped forward to confirm this statement.

Sources close to the company say they have contacted the defense and foreign ministries to help them get the company off an American blacklist. But these statements could also not be confirmed by official Israeli sources.

The Defense Ministry made it clear that is it not dealing in any way with the issue, which is being handled by the Foreign Ministry. That ministry announced late last week that the government has no intention to intervene on behalf of the company.

The sale of Raffles Park has also grabbed the attention of U.S. legal authorities, as well as officials in Jerusalem and academia.

The issues being examined include whether the company violated UN Security Council resolutions in selling the tanker to a company that in retrospect was shown to have links with Iran, and whether it violated Israeli laws when company ships anchored in Iranian ports.

Prof. Yuval Shany, an expert in international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Sunday that "U.S. laws are much tougher than Israeli laws on trade with Iran, which is an enemy country, and as far as I can comprehend it is not clear whether the Ofer Brothers Group has violated Israeli law."

Shany says that according to Security Council resolutions, Ofer Brothers had to ask the company that bought the tanker whether it was linked to Iran in any way.

"There is a ban in Israeli law on trade with the enemy, but it's not clear what is included in the ban and whether it includes, for example, services," Shany said. "As I've said, U.S. laws are much tougher than those of Israel, and they address activities of this sort."

Shany says the UN sanctions require that shipping companies inquire specifically whether an Iranian company is involved in a deal, because Iran uses front companies to acquire materials, equipment and technologies to bypass UN sanctions.

But Shany said "it's not clear whether this case falls under those guidelines. The connection between the company owned by Ofer and the Iranian national shipping company is unclear. The Ofer group should have, after the UN Security Council Resolutions of 2010, practiced the necessary due diligence to prevent bodies controlled by Iran to use a front in the case of the sale."