The United States intercepted four Iranian ships in August – the Bella, Bering, Pandi, and Luna – transporting 1.1 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela, after filing a complaint seeking to forfeit all petroleum-product cargo aboard the foreign-flagged oil tankers. According to the Justice Department the seized petroleum is now in US custody, and it called the cargo “the largest US seizure of Iranian fuel.”
The order to confiscate the shipments issued by US prosecutors, accused Iran of spending the income from oil exports for military purposes and supporting terrorism.
The Associated Press reported that “no military force was used in the seizure of the cargo,” and none of the ships were physically impounded. Instead, US officials threatened ship owners, insurers, and captains with sanctions to force them to hand over their cargo.
The enforcement of a forfeiture order was aimed at both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Venezuela’s government as part of Trump’s maximum pressure approach against the two heavily sanctioned nations, hoping that such action would discourage further trade between them. Despite being a large exporter of oil, Venezuela doesn’t produce enough domestically refined gasoline and it has been forced to seek relief from Iran due to fuel shortages.
After five Iranian tankers successfully reached Venezuela in May, the US had been determined to prevent any further shipments.
Iranian officials called the US move illegal and warned that Iran will not tolerate such behavior.
Iranian officials called the US move illegal and warned that Iran will not tolerate such behavior. In May, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that “any ‘pirate-like’ action by the US Navy against the Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela would trigger a harsh response,” while Member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Parliament, Ebrahim Rezaei, threatened that any actions against Iranian ships will be met with a quick and appropriate response.
So, how might Iran react to the US seizure of its oil tankers?
Despite serious threats, Iran has not taken any retaliation measures so far.
Trita Parsi, the co-founder and Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, believes that Iran will use every legal and political avenue available to it, particularly if it chooses not to push back militarily against the US. However, it is not likely that any legal or diplomatic offensive would bring meaningful progress, as Donald Trump and his associates have not been known to comply with international law and legal norms.
According to Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington: “Trump administration officials believe that the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran is a diplomatic imperative and indeed continue to seek legal justifications for intensifying pressure on the Islamic Republic. Iran’s avenues for recourse are limited, and the well of international sympathy for the country is pretty shallow,” Mogielnicki told Inside Arabia.
While it seems that Iran is not interested in further escalation with Washington, this may not be true for the other side. Also, some observers suspect that Iran will have to respond to the US’ actions in some way, as they did in January after the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Iran’s hardliners have already called for retaliation and made clear that Iran’s response should be similar to when the country seized British tanker Stena Impero as counter-measure to the seizure of Iranian tanker Grace1, earlier this year. But such an option would just amplify tensions, offering Trump a casus belli for an open military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
“Iran has the capabilities to disrupt the free flow of commerce and navigation through the Strait of Hormuz.”
In Mogielnicki’s opinion, while the ongoing tanker crisis has not necessarily escalated the existing tensions to an unprecedented level, “Iran has the capabilities to disrupt the free flow of commerce and navigation through the Strait of Hormuz and launch other attacks on critical infrastructure in the Persian Gulf while maintaining a high degree of plausible deniability.”
On the other hand, Parsi is convinced that the recent incident will not remain an isolated case. “We will see an uptick in what essentially are acts of piracy by the US after September 20, when the US will argue that UN sanctions on Iran have snapped back,” Parsi told Inside Arabia. “At this point, only seven weeks before the US elections, Trump and Pompeo are likely going to aggressively target Iranian ships as well as ships carrying Iranian oil, claiming they are enforcing UN Security Council sanctions.”
The White House is looking to activate the snapback option, which allows the participants of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. However, remaining parties of the nuclear deal repeatedly said that Washington no longer has the right to do that since it withdrew from the deal in 2017.
Trump’s administration is even more determined to resort to this option after the Security Council rejected a US resolution to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran after a humiliating vote on August 14, with only the Dominican Republic voting in favor of the US resolution.
Moreover, there is always a concern that Iran might activate its regional proxies as part of a retaliatory act against the US or its allies. But, in Mogielnicki’s opinion, the Trump administration seems to believe that the “‘maximum pressure’ campaign has significantly reduced Iran’s funding for – and hence influence over – its regional proxies.”
As for Parsi, “there is a likelihood that Iran will calculate that its restraint thus far has emboldened Trump and that the Trump/Pompeo team only will back down if the cost of their maximum pressure strategy is significantly raised by Iran starting to counter-target the US.” In short, while Tehran may want to inflict a cost on the US, it does not want to escalate matters towards war.
While Tehran may want to inflict a cost on the US, it does not want to escalate matters towards war.
There is also a fear that the aggressive US actions against Iranian tankers may also provoke Iran to further reduce its nuclear commitments by increasing enrichment levels or refusing to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.
In Parsi’s view, there will likely be some reduction in its commitments, but if Iran chooses to counter-pressure the US, he suspects that the bulk of its actions will be in the Persian Gulf.
Mark Hibbs, senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, pointed out that throughout last year, tension between Iran and the IAEA intensified over the Agency’s request for information from Iran to address findings and information suggesting that, as had been the case in the past, Iran may have withheld information about nuclear activities from UN verifiers. Though, Hibbs added, this impasse has apparently been resolved for now, following diplomacy involving the IAEA, its most important member states, and Iran.
In late August, Iran agreed to let UN investigators access nuclear sites that, according to Mogielnicki, might reflect “early preparations for a different chapter in US-Iranian relations.”
So, while it would certainly be premature to predict that this accord spells the end of two decades of reluctance by Iran to freely make disclosures to the IAEA, Hibbs told Inside Arabia that “it is probably unlikely that Iran, at least in the near term, would respond to the seizure of foreign-flagged vessels carrying Iranian cargos by once again escalating tensions over its nuclear program.”