By Carlos Quiroga
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia said on Friday it is investigating a complaint that its ship registry has allowed Iranian-owned ships to fly under the Andean nation's flag, in possible violation of a U.N. resolution.
Zoilo Roca Kikunaga, executive director of landlocked Bolivia's international ship registry, said the complaint was made the non-governmental organization Avaaz but that Bolivia has not received complaints from the United States or the United Nations.
"When we became aware of possible links to an organization banned by the U.N. a thorough investigation was started to identify concrete, legal elements that could result in the de-flagging of ships," he told Reuters by email.
"This is an issue that worries RIBB a lot," he said, referring to the registry by its acronym in Spanish. "We are making every effort to get to the bottom of this and investigating all possibilities to determine if the complaint is accurate."
Depending on the outcome of the inquiry, Bolivia could de-flag vessels linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). Only weeks ago, the IRISL replaced some Maltese and Cypriot flags on its ships with Bolivian ones.
Merchant ships need a flag from national ship registries to gain access to most of the world's ports and many fly those of other countries - especially Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas, Malta and Cyprus - to avoid paying taxes in their home countries.
IRISL, its many subsidiaries and their dozens of ships have been targeted by sanctions from the United States, the United Nations and the European Union for their suspected role in transporting military equipment for Tehran and concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
IRISL is widely suspected of frequently shifting the official registered owners, flags and names of its vessels.
Despite a 2010 U.N. resolution on dealing with Iranian government front companies, until recently Maltese flags still fluttered at the masts of 48 of 144 IRISL vessels identified by the EU, while Cypriot colors flew above 12.
With Malta and Cyprus coming under increased pressure to stop flagging Iranian government-linked ships, there has been a flurry of registrations in the last few months half a world away in Bolivia by companies that could be linked to the IRISL.
A Reuters review of International Maritime Organization numbers - which cannot be reassigned to other vessels - pointed to up to 15 Iranian owned ships registered in Bolivia.
Bolivia's government says it is especially investigating the ownership structure of two of those ships.
(Reporting by Carlos Quiroga; Editing by Terry Wade and Eric Beech)