In-house choice for new head of NITC greeted as positive

Nasrollah Sardashti’s appointment as the managing director of National Iranian Tanker Co is seen as a constructive move towards depoliticising Iran's shipping companies

The promotion of National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC) commercial director Nasrollah Sardashti to managing director this week marks the first time in a while that someone from within the industry has been appointed to lead a major Iranian shipping company.

The move has been welcomed by shipping sources in Iran, who say they are pleased there has been a return to the practice of using industry professionals to head companies rather than politically orientated or outside managers.

Sardashti takes the helm at NITC

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The previous three managing directors to have run NITC since the end of the three decades-long reign of Mohammad Souri in 2012 were all parachuted in from other industries or government sectors.

Sources close to NITC have long maintained that Souri was ousted by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wanted to secure his power base in business circles by inserting his own supporters into top positions.

Even though NITC was — and still is — a privately owned company, with pension funds its main shareholders, the often blurry nature of the relationship between Iran’s business and political spheres sometimes results in pressure being exerted on the commercial space.

Souri’s replacement was Hamid Behbahani, a 76-year-old academic and close ally of Ahmadinejad. With no shipping experience whatsoever, he was neither popular with NITC management nor the company’s board. Exactly one year after Behbahani moved in, they ordered him to pack his bags and vacate the executive office. He was replaced by former board member Dr Ali-Akbar Safaei.

Safaei previously worked as ports and maritime director-general of the Hormozgan Province in southern Iran. He was regarded as being far more capable to lead NITC forward and, by all accounts, quickly grew into the job. Just shy of four years later, Safaei was seeking pastures elsewhere, with the reason for his departure never publicly disclosed.

Next to take the role was Siroos Kianersi, a senior veteran of the Iranian oil industry, who joined the outfit in October 2016. There are suggestions in Iranian shipping circles that his exit, a mere 15 months later, may have been in part due to the sinking of the 164,000-dwt tanker Sanchi (built 2008) at the start of 2018, in which 32 crew were lost. NITC has not given a reason for his departure.

While there are no suggestions that Safaei and Kianersi’s appointments were politically motivated, NITC observers in Iran nonetheless are pleased that an experienced shipping professional is now leading the company.

As far as shipping experience goes, few have as much as the 60-year old Sardashti. His career with NITC spans 41 years, the first-half of which was spent as a navigating officer and captain on its tankers. He moved to the main office in 1995 to work as head of crude, before becoming chief of chartering and, since 2014, commercial director.

“He knows tankers and the tanker business inside out,” one close observer said.

Sardashti will have to draw on all his experience to steer NITC through the challenging times that lie ahead. There are difficult questions to answer about what went wrong in the Sanchi tragedy, while at the same time there is the task of dealing with the tricky post-sanctions environment that Iranian companies operating in international markets are facing.

There is also the challenge of navigating one of the world’s largest tanker operators, with a fleet of 56 crude and product carriers, through the rough waters currently being experienced by the global tanker market.