Iranian owners of four dry cargo ships are taking steps to deregister the vessels in Hong Kong just days after the Marine Department sent a letter to owners of 19 Iranian ships asking them to register their vessels elsewhere. Wong Sai-fat, the general manager of the Marine Department's shipping register, said the department had been told four owners had given instructions that they were leaving the Hong Kong shipping register. The department gave the shipowners 90 days' notice to find an alternative flag state in a letter on November 9. The owners who were sent the letters included Eternal Expert, which is the registered owner of the Alias, a 43,309 deadweight tonne handysize dry cargo ship. Eternal Expert operates through Tehran-based Rahbaran Omid Darya Ship Management, which also manages 15 other Hong Kong-flagged ships. All are handysize vessels, specialising in carrying minor bulk cargoes such as fertilisers, ores and timber, and were built between 1984 and 1986. The company and several key executives were the subject of tough restrictions imposed by the United States Treasury Department and European Union in October and December last year as part of wider sanctions against Iran. US and European governments alleged the company was a front for Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, which has been accused of being involved in the shipment of components of weapons of mass destruction. Under the sanctions, US and European nationals are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with Iranian entities, including Rahbaran. The Marine Department's decision to start the deflagging process for the Iranian ships was prompted by a move by the Korean Register of Shipping to stop providing ship safety auditing, certification services and documents of compliance for Iranian ships from January 1. The Korean register is one of nine classification societies authorised by the Marine Department to provide ship safety verification and certification services and issue documents of compliance. The other eight include ClassNK from Japan and China Classification Society, but the others are European, Scandinavian or American and would find it difficult to cover the vessels given US and European sanctions, Wong said. The China Classification Society had never surveyed or audited ships connected with Iranian ship management companies, Wong said. As a result it would be difficult for the ships to remain flagged in Hong Kong. Wong said the department could reconsider its decision if one of the other eight authorised classification societies accepted the vessels.