Seizure of Iran’s oil cargo amid Vienna talks may jeopardize agreement

March 11, 2022 - 21:43

TEHRAN— In an unconstructive move that could jeopardize a possible revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States has discreetly confiscated the cargo of two oil tankers belonging to Iran.

The U.S. claims that the tankers were suspected of smuggling Iranian oil as part of a sophisticated sanctions-busting plot including faked documentation and repainting a ship's deck to conceal unlawful transfers.

Details of the seizure, which had not previously been publicized, were revealed in a federal civil action unsealed last month after the Greek-managed vessels discharged their lucrative cargo, valued up to $38 million, at the behest of U.S. law enforcement in Houston and the Bahamas.

The seizure came as the Biden cabinet works to resurrect the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. The revival of the deal is intended to lift illegal sanctions imposed against Iran in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

This task has been made more important by Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. plan to retaliate by prohibiting all Russian oil imports, which may remove more than 10 million barrels of oil per day from the market.

Iran, which pumped an average of 2.4 million barrels per day in 2021 but has been able to sell less than half of what it produces due to sanctions, might make up some of that lost supply. 

The foes of Iran caution that, even as Ukraine challenges geopolitical calculations and the United States shifts its focus to Russia, the Biden administration should not ease pressure on the sanction-hit country. 

“This seizure exemplifies why the U.S. should not ease sanctions,” said Claire Jungman, chief of staff of the New York-based group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which carefully monitors Iran's crude imports. 

“We must continue to fight to ensure that earnings from the sale of Iranian oil are not used to fund terrorism and other actions that endanger the safety and security of all Americans,” she added. 

In a long and full of baseless allegations, the Associated Press, which first reported the seizure said, “The long journey that led to the U.S. seizure began in the fall of 2020, when the M/T Stark I, an Iranian-owned vessel subject to U.S. sanctions since 2018, repainted its deck in an apparent attempt to conceal the vessel and evade identification by satellite photography. On October 31, 2020, it arrived at a port in Iran’s Khark Island and loaded full of oil.”

“On Nov. 3, 2020, 733,876 barrels of oil were transported at sea to a different ship, the M/T Arina. Both ships turned off their transponders — a mandated safety equipment on all large ships — during the perilous ship-to-ship transfer to avoid being picked up on ship tracking databases, satellite pictures, and data given by Jungman claim,” it added.

The media seem to have forgotten that the U.S. has a long history of looting Iranian oil. 

According to the leaked documents, Donald Trump ordered the seizure of oil tankers carrying Iranian oil off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

The U.S. also sold the two million barrels of the stolen oil despite the fact that Iran was cash-strapped resulting from Washington’s heavy illegal sanctions.

Of course, this is not a first for the big looters. On July 2, 2020, a seizure order for the cargo from four vessels was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Jeb Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The statement said, “The government announced today that it has successfully executed the seizure order and confiscated the cargo from all four vessels, totaling approximately 1.116 million barrels of petroleum. With the assistance of foreign partners, this seized property is now in U.S. custody.”

The United States has stolen $110 million, put it into a bank account and freezing Iran’s access to it.

Both Iran and Venezuela were and continue to be in need of cash and raw materials to sustain their economies and remain afloat during the devastating COVID-19 outbreaks, which is why Iran dispatched five ships packed with oil to Venezuela in May of last year, bravely breaking past a U.S. blockade. This particular instance demonstrated how critical these trade networks are, which the U.S. considers "clandestine" but are, in fact, conventional trading contacts between sovereign states.

Iran’s then Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referred to the seizure of Iranian oil tankers as “piracy,” tweeting, “In ‘black is white’ world, UN deprived Iran of its voting rights in the #UNGA as we’re in arrears. Not considered: US #EconomicTerrorism prevents Iran paying for FOOD, let alone UN dues
My letter to @antonioguterres: ps: UN can also collect from $110M US stole in recent piracy.”

However, the AP continues its unfounded claims against Iran, reporting, “Despite U.S. sanctions, Iran has received a monetary bonanza as oil prices have climbed in the last year. Hundreds of privately owned, foreign-flagged tankers — termed a ‘ghost armada’ by Jungman's group — play a key role in the smuggling operation, employing a range of sophisticated ways to conceal their movements.

Even U.S.-owned tankers, such as one controlled by a unit of private equity behemoth Oaktree Capital Management, have been linked to the brisk black market activity. Ship tracking technology has aided efforts to uncover sanctions-evading activity by Iran and Venezuela, whose oil industry is also subject to U.S. export restrictions. Seizing oil supplies, on the other hand, is unusual: prior to this latest operation, it had only happened twice!”

It even went on to claim that “proceeds from the sale of forfeited cargoes are used to recompense American terrorist victims!”

There is a big question why should the revenue from Iran’s looted oil go to U.S. “terrorist victims”. Has the U.S. forgotten that Iran was and remains the biggest force against terrorism in West Asia?

Iran regained the authority to sell oil openly on the international market following the 2015 nuclear deal. However, in 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally exited the agreement and re-imposed American sanctions. This effectively shut down much of Iran's lucrative oil trade, which is a major source of revenue for the country.

However, in recent months, Iranian officials have said that they have been able to sell crude oil despite American sanctions. According to the state-run Iran daily, the Central Bank of Iran provided numbers at the beginning of February indicating that it made $18.6 billion in oil sales in the first half of current Persian year (March 2021-March 2022), up from $8.5 billion in the same period previous year.

In the midst of difficult negotiations to make up for Trump’s idiocy, the Biden administration’s unconstructive move has raised doubts about the United States’ goodwill in the talks. 

Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, a media advisor to the Iranian negotiating team in Vienna tweeted on Thursday, “Is this US goodwill? Is this how they want to conclude a deal?”

According to the media advisor, the hijacking of two Iranian oil cargo ships as well as U.S. “intransigence regarding the removal of maximum pressure sanctions and ‘terrorist’ designations for the armed forces is because Biden is weak and vulnerable.” 

“Other issues have solutions,” he added on Twitter. 

“U.S. piracy and the confiscation of 2 ships with Iranian oil cargo, remaining ‘terrorist’ designations, new U.S. demands as well as the U.S. failure to remove more companies, businesses and individuals from the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions regime are key problems that must be resolved,” he continued on Twitter. 

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