China ship firm ends Iran work as Tehran feels more heat

* Iran shipping sector facing more pressure

* Certification vital for insurance and ports access

LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - A Chinese firm has stopped

verifying safety and environmental standards for Iranian ships,

becoming the last top certification provider to end marine work

there as the trade noose on Tehran tightens.

The China Classification Society (CCS) is the last of the

world's top 13 such companies, all members of the International

Association of Classification Societies (IACS), to confirm it

has ended Iran-related certification work, key to insurance and

ports access for ships.

China and other countries in Asia including South Korea

continue to buy Iran's oil, but the loss of major ship

certifiers has raised concerns over the quality of insurance

cover and future maintenance of Iranian ships.

"Non IACS members do not have the global network to support

ships anywhere in the world. So, if something might happen, the

vessels are going to have to travel a further distance to get

assistance," a ship industry source said.

"Without elite classification and insurance cover, you

shudder to think what the implications of that are."

The IACS classes more than 90 percent of the world's

merchant fleet. It is made up of the top 13 of the more than 50

agencies that classify vessels. CCS is among the top providers.

A letter seen by Reuters dated Nov. 15 showed

Beijing-headquartered CCS had not provided certification

services to Iranian ships since June 28. It had been urged to

pull out by U.S. pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran

(UANI) and clarify its position.

"Currently there is not any ship flying an Iranian flag or

owned by an Iranian ship owner in our fleet, and we have not

conducted any statutory survey for any Iranian ship," CCS

chairman and president Sun Licheng said in the letter to UANI

dated Nov. 15.

An official with CCS's international department confirmed it

had sent a letter to UANI chief executive Mark Wallace.

"Wallace sent us an email and we issued a reply to them on

Nov. 15," the official told Reuters on Wednesday.

When asked why they had taken the decision, the official

said: "It has been clearly explained in our letter," declining

further comment.

Despite the CCS move, China continues to be the biggest

taker of Iranian oil - a vital revenue earner for Tehran.

"It is surprising to see CCS making this move but it could

be a case of it being a publicly known entity. So, it seems like

it's a perception issue," the ship industry source said.

IRAN SHIPPING TARGETED

A targeted campaign by UANI, which includes former U.S.

ambassadors as well as former CIA and British intelligence

chiefs on its board and is funded by private donations, has

already led to other top classification societies exiting Iran.

Without certification from classification societies, vessels

are unable to secure insurance cover or call at most

international ports.

UANI's Wallace on Wednesday welcomed the move by CCS, but

sought harsher measures being imposed on Iran's fleet.

"All of the world's major shipping certifiers have now ended

their certification of Iranian vessels," said Wallace, a former

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

"We call for even tougher sanctions: any vessel that docks

in Iran or transports Iranian cargo should be barred from

accessing ports in the U.S., EU, or elsewhere."

Iran's shipping trade has been battered by Western

sanctions, aimed at pressuring Iran over its disputed nuclear

programme. Shipping is reeling from a ban on insurance cover

from Europe while many maritime authorities have de-flagged

Iranian ships. Ship owners have also cut trade ties fearing the

loss of business in markets such as the United States.

Earlier this month Hong Kong said it would stop allowing 19

ships linked to Iran's biggest cargo carrier the Islamic

Republic of Iran Shipping Lines from operating under its flag.

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