Jeb Bush was the 43rd governor of Florida. He is an advisory board member of United Against Nuclear Iran.
Russia and China are well known as Iran’s allies and trading partners, but there is another country that has been instrumental in the regime’s continued survival: Panama.
Without Panama’s support, the Iranian regime would face significant hurdles in smuggling its oil and gas around the world. At least 16 percent of the world’s shipping fleet, by deadweight tonnage, is registered in Panama, including 39 percent of the 288 vessels that United Against Nuclear Iran, an organization I advise, has identified as suspected of participating in Iran’s foreign-flagged ghost armada.
The Treasury Department should block this oil tanker fleet in its entirety from engaging with Americans and U.S. businesses for violating U.S. sanctions. The ships are at the core of a smuggling network that helped the regime export $30 billion worth of oil in 2021, according to UANI’s analysis of the monthly volume of Iran’s oil exports and the discounted price at which Iran sells its oil.
That revenue helps Iran fund terrorist organizations and pay security forces responsible for gross human rights abuses against Iranian protesters.
Given that Panama enjoys the fruits of billions of dollars in annual trade with the United States and receives more direct U.S. investment than any other Central American country, the Panamanian government appears remarkably unconcerned about ensuring that it is not helping a U.S. adversary evade U.S. sanctions.
Since 2020, the Panama Maritime Authority — the world’s biggest flag registry — has been presented with evidence gathered by UANI on 130 vessels of concern, but the PMA has deflagged just 18 of them, allowing the others to continue their suspected function as mules for the Iranian regime. For example, on multiple occasions, UANI has presented the authority with official bills of lading stamped by the National Iranian Oil Co., as additional evidence of a vessel loading oil from Iran. Despite this hard evidence, the vessels remain flagged by Panama.
The Panama Maritime Authority has been even less responsive to concerns raised by the U.S. government. Two months ago, the Treasury Department, as part of its counterterrorism efforts, designated three Panamanian-flagged vessels for their involvement in blending Iranian oil with Indian petroleum. (Iranian profits can be used to support such U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations as Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.)
A fourth vessel, a tanker called the Glory Harvest, was designated by the Treasury Department last year for shipping Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products, as was a fifth vessel for its involvement in a network of companies used to illicitly sell millions of barrels of Iranian oil.
What has Panama done in response? Nothing. These vessels continue to sail under the Panamanian flag.
Now, incredibly, Panama wants to lead the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and combating illicit maritime activities. The Panamanian government is undeserving of the prestige that it would gain if its ambassador to the organization, Arsenio Dominguez, were to become secretary general of the agency. Simply put: Panama is unworthy of the international community’s trust.
There is still time for the United States to forcefully make that case. The International Maritime Organization’s leadership election isn’t until the summer; in the coming months, the United States should press Panama to choose between aiding a misogynistic and murderous regime or clearly aligning itself with the free world.
Such pressure can be applied in a variety of ways. The new Congress should investigate Panama’s role in facilitating sanctions evasion, and the Biden administration should add every Panamanian-flagged vessel that has carried sanctioned cargoes, their owners and their operators to the U.S. list of “specially designated nationals.” Doing so blocks entities’ assets, subjects them to seizure and freezes them out of doing business in the United States.
President Biden should also punish all individuals and entities making up the universe of so-called maritime service providers participating in Iran’s sanctions evasion. They have avoided accountability for too long. It is time for the United States to send an unambiguous message that helping fund the Iranian regime is intolerable and will be punished.