Foreign container shipping lines are giving up on Iranian business ahead of new U.S. sanctions in July, dealing a further blow to Tehran's vital seaborne trade.
Iran's economy is already reeling from the effect of measures imposed by the West to curb Tehran's nuclear programme. Its currency has lost two thirds of its value since late 2011, inflation is soaring, and unemployment is rising fast as manufacturing, starved of parts and international finance, has contracted.
Many of Iran's imports, including food and consumer goods, arrive on container, bulker and other ships. Feeder services, which transport ship containers to Iran especially from larger ports in the United Arab Emirates, are also used.
The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which comes into effect on July 1, blacklists Iran's shipping, shipbuilding, energy and ports management sectors. While it has an explicit exemption for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods, foreign shipping firms are pulling out to avoid falling foul of its provisions.
"Iran will become increasingly dependent on feeder services from nearby Gulf states for the import of its goods as major container shipping companies become ever more wary of transgressing against the numerous sanctions," said Daniel Richards, with Business Monitor International (BMI).
Kuwait-headquartered United Arab Shipping Co (UASC), which is among the world's biggest 20 container lines, said last month it had suspended all services to and from Iran.
"We now find ourselves in the peculiar situation where even if we are carrying non-sanctioned cargo to non-sanctioned entities, the cargo will eventually have to be handled by a party which the U.S. government considers as providing financial support to a sanctioned party," it said.
In a company memo seen by Reuters, UASC added: "With the passing of the NDAA ... the difficulties in shipping cargo to and from Iran have only increased."
Mark Dubowitz, who has advised President Barack Obama's administration and U.S. lawmakers on sanctions, said container lines transporting humanitarian goods would not face measures.
"You may be seeing a short period of adjustment as these companies seek clarity on the new rules, but this trade should face minimal disruption," he said. "The container lines can operate easily under the broad humanitarian exemptions available in every sanctions law."
Nevertheless, companies are uncomfortable. Dubai-based Simatech Shipping said this month it would cut services to and from Iran from June because of the new sanctions.