News : Middle East

Release of Iranian Tanker Creates New Uncertainties about Persian Gulf Tensions

It was reported on Monday that a tanker laden with Iranian oil, which was ordered released by authorities in Gibraltar last week, was apparently on its way to a port in Greece. On July 4, the Grace 1 was seized by British Royal Marines after entering the Mediterranean Sea, marking a notable escalation in tensions between Iran and the West. Roughly two weeks later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a British-flagged vessel in retaliation while demanding the release of the Grace 1.

Prior to setting sail for Greece, that ship was renamed the Adrian Darya 1. Its detention at Gibraltar was lifted on Thursday, but the US immediately took steps to present a legal challenge to its release. Although the estimated two million barrels of oil on the supertanker are under universal sanction by the US, the July 4 seizure was prompted not by these sanctions but by sanctions imposed by the European Union on trade with entities affiliated with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Some initial reports regarding the Grace 1 suggested that the US had requested the seizure, but the authorities involved in the incident denied this.

Nonetheless, the unilateral American seizures evidently constitute the basis for the unsuccessful challenge to the ship’s release. Furthermore, these same sanctions would serve to justify a prospective American re-seizure of the Adrian Darya – something that was reportedly being seriously considered by the White House as of Monday.

Although British authorities maintained, right up until the release, that they had reliable evidence for Iran’s prior intent to sell its oil in Syria, the Islamic Republic has since provided written assurances that it will no longer do so. This ostensibly leaves the US on its own in dealing with a case that may now involve violations of US sanctions only. However, because of those sanctions, Tehran has refused to give any explanation for where the oil is now headed, since the purchasers would be subject to penalties from the US Treasury.

It is unknown whether the oil will be sold in Greece, whether Greece is only a stopping point along the way to another destination, or whether the Adrian Darya now intends to clandestinely transfer some or all of its oil to other ships while at sea, thus concealing its country of origin and allowing it to potentially be transferred to any number of destinations, including Syria. Iranian transactions with Assad-linked refineries might be difficult to identify under those circumstances, but if they were revealed it might prompt renewed enforcement actions by the United Kingdom, or even participation from other EU member states.

The UK is expected to leave the EU by the end of October, and some commentators have concluded that its progress toward that end is pushing British policies into closer alignment with those of the US. But while this may continue to influence London’s dealings with Tehran, the latter’s actions are certainly having their own impact. Apart from seizing the Stena Impero in retaliation for the Grace 1, the Islamic Republic has also persisted in other provocative regional activities such as paramilitary training and ballistic missile development, and has lately begun violating the 2015 nuclear deal, despite British efforts to uphold it.

Trump withdrew from that agreement in May of last year, and since then, the Islamic Republic has expressed deep dissatisfaction with its economic incentives for remaining committed to restrictions on its nuclear stockpiles and enrichment activities. However, such complaints even preceded the American withdrawal, as Iranian officials took issue with sanctions unrelated to their nuclear program yet still refused to bring the country into compliance with international regulations relating to money-laundering and terrorist financing. Just as that non-compliance has helped to fuel support for “maximum pressure” strategy put into place by the Trump administration last year, it is now contributing to public arguments in favor of further unilateral American action, particularly seizure of the Adrian Darya.

In an editorial published on Monday, the Washington Examiner strongly recommended that President Trump order the US Navy to carry out that action before the tanker arrives in Greece. The article specifically pointed to the perceived justification and benefits of the US sanctions, noting that revenue from oil sales frequently adds to the coffers of the Revolutionary Guard and thereby helps to finance regional terrorism and Tehran’s various hardline activities. The editorial went on to add that if the Adrian Darya was allowed to offload its cargo, “the IRGC would regard their success as testifying to American weakness.”

“This isn't about posturing, it's about holding firm to a policy that is paying dividends,” the article explained, echoing White House talking points which highlight the success the maximum pressure campaign has had in tightening Iran’s economy and cutting off the flow of capital to IRGC proxies and hardline Iranian institutions. Various reports have corroborated the administration’s account, noting for instance that the longtime Iranian beneficiary Hezbollah has been compelled to ask residents of its native Lebanon to contribute financing out of their own pockets in order to compensate for the loss of a formerly reliable flow of money from Tehran.

On Monday, NBC News further contributed to reporting on the success of US sanctions after gaining direct access to the Islamic Republic. After describing those sanctions as the “most potent weapon” in the US arsenal during a time of escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, the network’s interviews with Iranian citizens underscored the fact that their own economic pain has been ongoing for a very long time and is attributed to mismanagement by the Iranian government more so than to sanctions which have deliberately targeted the regime instead of the public.

While not all outlets agree about the extent to which this separation is sustainable, some of the most serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that the situation can hardly get worse for the Iranian people and that the interruption of oil sales only serves to weaken institutions like the IRGC, thereby making them more vulnerable to public protest. Many of those same critics, such as the pro-democracy coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have accordingly urged their Western supporters to maintain and expand upon maximum pressure campaign with the specific goal of supporting resistance activism in the Islamic Republic.

That activism became a more apparent threat to the theocratic system at the beginning of 2018, following the outbreak of a nationwide uprising organized in large part by the NCRI’s leading constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Despite acknowledging the PMOI’s prominent role in such activism, figures like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sought to dismiss the uprising as being instigated by infiltration groups with their roots in the West.

Facing the dual threats of greater international isolation and enhanced domestic activism, Tehran has made clear moves to conflate them while promoting an image of imperviousness to supposed threats from the US and its allies. Brigadier General Alireza Sabahi-Fard clearly contributed to this effort last week when an English-language Iranian state media outlet quoted him as saying “the enemy knows that it cannot test Iran’s preparedness and defense might.” The statement followed shortly after reports in this and other state media outlets which claimed that Iran had developed significant new military technology, supposedly offsetting the effects of economic sanctions that prevented the maintenance and upgrade of foreign-built systems.

Such declarations of expanded military might are commonplace in the Islamic Republic but are frequently disregarded by international experts, with state media images often displaying little more than outmoded technology with superficial alterations. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped Iranian officials from portraying their nation as ready for direct conflict with the world’s leading superpower. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif seemed to take this very position last week when he reportedly addressed the US via Twitter to ominously declare that “every empire will end.”

Although Zarif has traditionally been treated by Western officials as a moderate voice in comparison to Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC commanders, such statements arguably point to a closer-than-recognized alignment between the policy preferences and rhetorical tendencies of the two factions. The differences between those factions have long been discounted by groups like the PMOI and the NCRI. And at the end of last month, the Trump administration appeared to do the same when it imposed sanctions on Zarif, describing him as a mouthpiece for the Supreme Leader just weeks after Khamenei himself was placed under sanction.

Critics of the White House’s maximum pressure strategy were quick to suggest that such a gesture might make diplomacy more difficult at a time of escalating tensions. And the significance of this warning may be amplified if the US does indeed move to seize the Adrian Darya. However, Zarif’s sanctioning came only after he categorically rejected an invitation for direct talks with the Trump administration, and the prospective consequences of another maritime seizure are only as great as the Iranian response, which may or may not match the regime’s rhetoric of military readiness.

On one hand, Sabahi-Fard’s remarks about Iran’s “defense might” were preceded by his claim that “the enemy today has stopped at a distance of 200 miles away from the Strait of Hormuz and is pulling out its vessels from the Persian Gulf.” This was presumably a reference to both the US and Britain, as the former has resolved to coordinate multilateral security from outside the Strait while Britain is scheduled to remove one of its warships from the region. That ship will, however, be immediately replaced by another, and is expected to continue the British mission of shadowing commercial vessels as they transit the Strait, in order to deter against further provocative measures like the IRGC’s seizure of the Stena Impero.

Despite the release of the Adrian Darya, the fate of the Impero remains to be determined. When the release was pending last week, there was no indication of a reciprocal agreement with Iran, and now Iranian officials have indicated that they have no intention of releasing their own seizure until the Adrian Darya actually arrives at its destination. This serves as further confirmation of the retaliatory nature of the latter seizure, but it also suggests that Tehran may hold Britain responsible for US actions and other developments that are not under the UK’s control.

In other words, the rhetoric still issuing from Tehran points to the potential for actions that could accelerate the regional tensions more quickly than the actions of any other player in the crisis. And this would no doubt push the UK and possibly other European countries further in the direction of current US policy and a strategy of maximum pressure. And from the perspective of the Trump administration, which has consistently described its own actions as being geared toward deterring Tehran and compelling negotiations, this change in allies’ policy may ultimately be beneficial to the prospects for peace.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to raise alarm among those allies over the looming expiration of United Nations embargos on the sale of weapons by and to the Islamic Republic. Even before those sales become legal again, the commander of the IRGC’s foreign expeditionary Quds Force would be permitted to travel freely despite his prior designation as a foreign terror sponsor. Such changes would allow Iran to deepen its footprint in the broader Middle East, in line with a well-known strategy to position the Islamic Republic at the head of a unified “Shiite crescent.”

“Time is running out on international agreements restraining the Iranian regime,” the State Department emphasized in a statement that also urged the international community to “stand together against the Iranian regime’s support for terror.” No doubt, the world’s response to this appeal will depend in large part on whether it perceives Iran’s destabilizing activities in the same light as does the US. And this may in turn depend on whether Tehran actually takes action on the basis of its own rhetoric about military readiness.

Despite the strength of that rhetoric, there is reason to question this. Although Sabahi-Fard sought to give the impression that Iran’s “enemy” is in retreat in the Persian Gulf, this narrative seems to be undermined by Tehran’s emerging plans to focus on overland routes for its oil, thereby avoiding the Strait of Hormuz almost entirely from 2021 onward. It is difficult to imagine why the regime would set this as a goal if Tehran is truly confident in its ability to evade or overpower Western enforcement of petroleum sanctions and other features of a still-developing maximum pressure strategy.

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