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Iran parks oil off Malaysia to dodge sanctions

LABUAN, Malaysia/SINGAPORE -- Iran is using a little-known port off the East Malaysia coast to hide millions of barrels of oil from Western sanctions, according to shipping data, industry sources and officials.

A Reuters examination of shipping movements and interviews shows how Iranian crude is shipped to the area and loaded on to empty vessels at night to await potential Asian buyers. Storing the oil on hired tankers operating under the Panamanian flag in the calm waters off the tax-haven port of Labuan — an offshore financial center about the size of Manhattan — means Iran can keep its own fleet active and ensure the flow of oil money into its struggling economy.

At least two large oil tankers have been unloaded this way in recent weeks and several more Iranian vessels were steaming towards Asia, according to Reuters Freight Fundamentals, which tracks the movement of the global tanker fleet. One was destined for a Chinese port, while three others, carrying as much as 6 million barrels of crude or fuel oil, were sailing to unknown destinations.

Iran would like to shift more oil to what is effectively a mobile storage depot off Malaysia's coast over the next few months, said an industry source familiar with Iran's planning who didn't want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. But it is struggling to find shipowners willing to offer vessels for storage.

While not illegal, the dead-of-night transfer of oil in the South China Sea illustrates the lengths to which Iran will go to keep exporting its oil to skirt Western sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. A European Union oil embargo has virtually halted access around the world to insurance for Iranian crude and oil products.

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