The MV Iran Deyanat. Photo from Maritime News Russia.
Written by Nick Grace & Abdiweli Ali, Ph.D.
A tense standoff is underway in northeastern Somalia between pirates, Somali authorities, and Iran over a suspicious merchant vessel and its mysterious cargo. Hijacked late last month in the Gulf of Aden, the MV Iran Deyanat remains moored offshore in Somali waters and inaccessible for inspection. Its declared cargo consists of minerals and industrial products, however, Somali and regional officials directly involved in the negotiations over the ship and who spoke to The Long War Journal are convinced that it was heading to Eritrea to deliver small arms and chemical weapons to Somalia’s Islamist insurgents.
It was business as usual when speedboats surrounded the MV Iran Deyanat on August 21. The 44468 dead weight tonnage bulk carrier was pushing towards the Suez and had just entered the Gulf of Aden – dangerous waters where instability, greed and no-questions-asked ransom payments have led to a recent surge in piracy. Steaming past the Horn of Africa, 82 nautical miles southeast of al-Makalla in Yemen, the ship was a prize for the taking. It would bring hundreds of thousands of dollars – possibly millions – to the Somalia-based crime syndicate. The captain was defenseless against the 40 pirates armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades blocking his passage. He had little choice other than to turn his ship over to them. What the pirates were not banking on, however, was that this was no ordinary ship.
The MV Iran Deyanat is owned and operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) – a state-owned company run by the Iranian military that was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on September 10, shortly after the ship’s hijacking. According to the U.S. Government, the company regularly falsifies shipping documents in order to hide the identity of end users, uses generic terms to describe shipments to avoid the attention of shipping authorities, and employs the use of cover entities to circumvent United Nations sanctions to facilitate weapons proliferation for the Iranian Ministry of Defense.
The MV Iran Deyanat set sail from Nanjing, China, at the end of July and, according to its manifest, planned to travel to Rotterdam, where it would unload 42,500 tons of iron ore and “industrial products” purchased by a German client. Its arrival in the Gulf of Aden, Somali officials tell The Long War Journal, was suspiciously early. According to a publicly available status report on the IRISL Web site, the ship reached the Gulf on August 20 and was scheduled to reach the Suez Canal on August 27 – a seven day journey. “Depending on the speed of the ship,” Puntland Minister of Ports Ahmed Siad Nur said in a phone interview on Saturday, “it should take between 4 and 5 days to reach Suez.”
Suspicion has also been cast on the ship’s crew, half of which is almost entirely staffed by Iranians – a large percentage of Iranian nationals for a standard merchant vessel. Somali officials say that the ship has a crew of 29 men, including a Pakistani captain, an Iranian engineer, 13 other Iranians, 3 Indians, 2 Filipinos, and 10 Eastern Europeans, possibly Croatian.
The MV Iran Deyanat was brought to Eyl, a sleepy fishing village in northeastern Somalia, and was secured by a larger gang of pirates – 50 onboard and 50 onshore. Within days, pirates who had boarded the ship developed strange health complications, skin burns and loss of hair. Independent sources tell The Long War Journal that a number of pirates have also died. “Yes, some of them have died. I do not know exactly how many but the information that I am getting is that some of them have died,” Andrew Mwangura, Director of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program, said Friday when reached by phone in Mombasa.
News about the illness and the toxic cargo quickly reached Garowe, seat of the government for the autonomous region of Puntland. Angered over the wave of piracy and suspicious about the Iranian ship, authorities dispatched a delegation led by Minister of Minerals and Oil Hassan Allore Osman to investigate the situation on September 4. Osman also confirmed to The Long War Journal that during the six days he negotiated with the pirates members of the syndicate had become sick and died. “That ship is unusual,” he said. “It is not carrying a normal shipment.”
The delegation faced a tense situation in Eyl, Osman recounts. The syndicate had demanded a $9 million ransom for 10 ships that were in its possession and refused permission to inspect the Iranian vessel. At one point, he said, the pirates threatened to “blow up” the MV Iran Deyanat if authorities tried to inspect it with force. A committee of delegate members and Eyl city officials was formed to negotiate directly with the pirates in order to defuse the situation.
Once in direct contact, the pirates told Osman that they had attempted to inspect the ship’s seven cargo containers after they developed health complications but the containers were locked. The crew claimed that they did not have the “access codes” and could not open them. The delegation secured contact with the captain and the engineer by cell phone and demanded to know the nature of the cargo, however, Osman says that “they were saying different things to different people.” Initially they said that the cargo contained “crude oil” but then claimed it contained “minerals.”
“The secrecy is not clear to us,” Mwangura said about the cargo. “Our sources say it contains chemicals, dangerous chemicals.” IRISL has flatly denied the ship is carrying a “dangerous consignment” and has threatened legal action against Mwangura.
The syndicate set the ship’s ransom at $2 million and the Iranian government provided $200,000 to a local broker “to facilitate the exchange.” Iran refutes that it agreed to the price and has paid any money to the pirates. Nevertheless, after sanctions were applied to IRISL on September 10, Osman says, the Iranians told the pirates that the deal was off. “They told the pirates that they could not come because of the presence of the U.S. Navy.” The region is patrolled by the multinational Combined Taskforce 150, which includes ships from the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
In a strange twist, the Iranian press claims that the U.S. has offered to pay a $7 million bribe to the pirates to “receive entry permission and search the vessel.” Officials in the Pentagon and the Department of State approached for this story refused to comment on the situation. Somali officials would also not comment on any direct U.S. involvement but one high-level official in the Puntland government told The Long War Journal “I can say the ship is of interest to a lot of people, including Puntland.”
The exact nature of the cargo remains a mystery but officials in Puntland and Baidoa are convinced the ship was carrying weapons to Eritrea for Islamist insurgents. “We cannot inspect the cargo yet,” Osman said, “but we are sure that it is weapons.”
“Puntland requested the pirates two weeks ago to hand over this Iranian ship, saying that it is carrying weapons to Eritrea,” Puntland Fisheries Minister Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf told Reuters. “I have seen food and other odd items on the ship but I do not know what is hidden underneath.”
Iran’s involvement in the conflict in Somalia on behalf of Islamist insurgents is well documented. In 2006, Iran flouted arms embargos and provided sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), intelligence sources told The Long War Journal, including SA-7 Strella and SA-18 Igla MANPADS – shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles – as well as AT-3 Sagger antitank missiles.
A report issued by the United Nations in 2006 states that weapons were transferred to Somalia through Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which also absorbed a contingent of 700 Islamist fighters from Somalia during Hezbollah’s war with Israel. The report also states that Iran provided support for Islamist training camps inside Somalia and had sent two emissaries to negotiate with the ICU for access to Somalia’s uranium mines.