The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) was not pressured by Foreign Affairs Minister John Dalli when deciding to operate through a local company in which Mr Dalli's relatives are involved, the company's European office told The Times yesterday.

IRISL general manager for Europe Alireza Semnanipour denied allegations that Mr Dalli was in any way involved in the company's choice as to who its Maltese partner would be.

Opposition Leader Alfred Sant has accused Mr Dalli of abuse of power and called on Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to investigate the matter after the MLP's weekly newspaper KullHadd alleged that Gauci Borda Shipping Company had been appointed the agents of the Iranian shipping company, which had been previously been represented locally by SMS Shipping.

The newspaper claimed that an official at the Foreign Affairs Ministry was a director of Gauci Borda Shipping Company and that Mr Dalli's daughter was company secretary.

Captain Semnanipour said no exclusive agreement existed between IRISL and SMS nominating the latter as the Iranian company's local representative.

"There were no signed documents," he said.

Captain Semnanipour said discussions had been held with SMS and with other companies before choosing Gauci Borda as its local representative.

"We were free to move to another company since there was no binding contract with SMS," he said when contacted at IRISL's European regional office in Hamburg.

Captain Semnanipour said Iran does not have any diplomatic presence in Malta and this was a purely commercial venture and not a political one.

He stressed that neither the Maltese nor the Iranian government were involved in the negotiations and IRISL discussed the matter directly with the Freeport before deciding to start using Malta as its hub port in the Mediterranean. IRISL's UK office was also involved in the search for the best Maltese partner.

"IRISL was looking for the best partner in Malta that could offer the best package," he said. IRISL is the largest shipping company in the Middle East, with offices in a number of countries around the world. IRISL commercial director Mehdi Shamszadeh has sent a letter to SMS managing director Adrian Mifsud over the matter.

Mr Shamszadeh said SMS was not IRISL's container agent but the Iranian shipping line had given the Maltese company "some ad hoc business for some occasions". He denied that IRISL had any general agreement with SMS and said the two companies had no commitment towards each other.

In the letter, dated May 31, he said that when IRISL decided to come to Malta it had contacts with various agents and the decision as to which company would be the shipping line's local representative was taken on a set of commercial criteria.

"Therefore, our choice fell on another agency, which gave more competitive rates," Mr Shamszadeh wrote in his letter to Mr Mifsud.

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