The first of two Iranian vessels believed to be carrying fuel for Lebanon is expected to reach the Suez Canal by Tuesday evening.
Details of the ships, including the size of their load, will become available to the public when they get to the canal, tracking company TankerTrackers.com told The National on Monday.
The controversial deal, announced a few weeks ago, was struck between Lebanese businessmen supportive of the Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah and Tehran.
The import of US-sanctioned Iranian fuel has been a subject of a fierce debate in Lebanon, which is suffering from crippling fuel shortages caused by a severe two-year financial crisis.
The cash-strapped central bank increasingly struggles to subsidise fuel imports, and state electricity output has all but collapsed with a knock-on effect on hospital services and the production of basic commodities such as bread.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on August 22 that the first of several Iranian ships, set to carry diesel oil, would set sail “within hours”, positioning the group as a saviour for the fuel-starved country. “We refuse the humiliation of our people,” he said in a speech.
Iran’s semi-official Nournews reported that the fuel was purchased by a group of Lebanese Shiite businessmen, but Hezbollah, a political party which also operates a regional militia, has refused to disclose their identity.
The move was organised entirely by the group, with the Lebanese caretaker energy minister saying last Wednesday that the government had received no request for fuel to be imported from Iran. Analysts previously told The National that the imports put Lebanon at risk of sanctions.
Mr Nasrallah did not say where the ships would dock. Quoting anonymous sources, Reuters reported last week that they would end their journey in Syria, with the fuel coming in to Lebanon by lorry via the land border.
Samir Madani, co-founder and chief analyst at TankerTrackers.com, said that the company had identified two Iranian tankers loaded with fuel for Lebanon – one with fuel for electricity generation, and another carrying gasoline.
The first is expected to reach the Suez Canal by Tuesday evening. Once it exits the canal, it would need another 36 hours to reach Baniyas port in Syria, should that be its destination, said Mr Madani.
The ship’s automatic tracking system, or AIS, is currently off to evade detection, a common tactic among ships carrying sanctioned cargo, said Mr Madani. But by analysing satellite imagery, TankerTrackers.com has come to the conclusion that the first ship is in the Red Sea.
Like all ships, it will have to switch on its AIS once it hits the Suez Canal, disclosing its data to the public. TankerTrackers.com plans to relay what it knows about the ship – including its name and how much fuel it is carrying - around the same time on its Twitter account, where it has more than 60,000 followers.
Mr Madani, who has been tracking Iranian fuel since 2017, warned that transporting the fuel from Syria to Lebanon by lorry would be a long and cumbersome operation.
“Let’s say there’s half a million barrels, that’s 2,630 trucks that will have to cross a border manned by Lebanese security authorities,” he said. That "will put Lebanon in a bad spot” regarding US sanctions, he added.
“If these trucks pass through a legal crossing manned by general security and customs, then those entities are prone to sanctions,” said Bachar El Halabi, senior MENA geo-political analyst for data intelligence firm Clipper Data.
“This is why it is better for Hezbollah to use its illegal crossings to smuggle the fuel, but this time from Syria to Lebanon.”
Hezbollah is widely accused of organising smuggling operations from Lebanon to Syria. This includes subsidised Lebanese fuel.
Last April, local newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour reported that a Hezbollah official, Sadek Naboulsi, said that smuggling towards Syria was “part of the resistance’s action” because it helps Hezbollah’s close ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, fight US sanctions.