Why did Iran register ships in the Isle of Man?

Image caption Israel claims munitions seized were first loaded on a Manx-registered ship

A BBC investigation has uncovered questions over whether Iranian ships have been registered in the Isle of Man to evade international sanctions.

Later this month Foreign Secretary William Hague and his EU counterparts are expected to release more details about the latest round of European sanctions aimed at halting Iran's military machine and possible development of weapons of mass destruction.

But a File on 4 investigation has discovered questions over whether the Iranians have already sidestepped the international arms embargo, on the UK's own doorstep by setting up companies in the Isle of Man to register ships for its fleet.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) has been under increasing levels of international sanctions during the past two years for its part in smuggling nuclear technologies and ballistic missile parts as well as for running weapons to other groups allied to the regime in Tehran.

Thousands of miles away from the Gulf, on the Isle of Man, a tiny UK Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea which has its own laws and an ancient parliament, a local businessman has been involved in transferring the ownership of IRISL vessels into six companies he has helped to form.

'Normal ownership'

Captain Nigel Malpass, a marine consultant based in the island's capital Douglas, is one of two directors named for these companies, the other is Ahmad Sarkandi, an Iranian who is also a leading executive in the state shipping line.

Captain Malpass would not be interviewed by the BBC but said the companies had been formed at the request of a German bank which holds a mortgage on all of the ships.

In a statement he said the transactions were governed by English law and the way companies were set up was "the absolute norm in the business of ship ownership".

He added that the Manx authorities approved his business dealings which were arranged some years before the sanctions came into force.

Captain Malpass did not address whether these arrangements are also helping the Iranians evade the sanctions.

Concerns were raised last month in the Manx Parliament but the island's chief minister Tony Brown maintained that an investigation had revealed no wrongdoing and he denied that the island had aided any breach of the sanctions.

"We have to be realistic we can't do any more, we shouldn't be expected to do any more."

He added: "Why should we shut down legitimate businesses.... we shouldn't be expected to take action the rest of the world won't."

Arms seizure

However incidents such as the seizure of a huge cache of arms and ammunition by Israeli naval commandos last November on a ship called the Francop off Cyprus pose further questions for Manx authorities.

The Israelis claim the arms were in crates carrying the logos of IRISL or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and alleged the consignment had originally set sail from Iran to Egypt in an IRISL ship, the Douglas-registered Visea.

The BBC has found that the Visea's owners are Byfleet Shipping company, which is also based in the Manx capital.

Captain Malpass is one of Byfleet's two directors, which also has some of its shares owned by IRISL.

There is no suggestion that Captain Malpass had any knowledge of the activities of the ships owned by the companies of which he was the director.

In a statement he said: "IRISL has always strenuously denied these unproven allegations made by Israel's Foreign Ministry in respect of MV Visea.

"The matter was investigated in depth by the authorities in the Isle of Man responsible for monitoring such activities and after fully investigating the allegations, the authorities have been satisfied that that there was nothing carried out by myself or my associates which could be interpreted as infringing the appropriate sanctions."

'Untouchable firms?'

Manx chief Minister Mr Brown said Israel should raise the matter with the UN.

But this attitude has been sharply criticised by Israeli official, Ran Gidor, a political adviser at its embassy in London.

"Even assuming the resident in the Isle of Man had no clear knowledge of the contents of the ship the very fact he chose to get involved with shipping traffic going in and out of Iran would expose him or risk.

"We think the word should spread IRISL and its straw companies and subsidiaries are untouchables. You may think you know what you are getting involved in but you don't really"

In a statement to the BBC, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in regards to sanctions: "The issue is a matter for the Isle of Man government."

It added: "The Ministry of Justice is in regular touch with the governments of the Crown Dependencies, including the Isle of Man, about a wide range of issues."

File on 4 was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 13 July 2010, repeated Sunday, 11 July, at 1700 BST. You can listen via BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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