Tensions between Iran and the United States have intensified since the case of suspected Iranian oil hidden in a Liberian cargo ship. Indeed, the Americans have reaffirmed their willingness to seize 2 million Iranian barrels. They invoke the country’s anti-terrorism laws to justify the docking of the cargo carrying this oil. This case comes amidst uncertainty about the future of U.S.-Iran relations.
Iran-U.S. tensions over fear of concealed oil
Tensions between Iran and the United States have been on the rise again since the US Department of Justice filed a complaint on Tuesday 2 February to have the cargo of the Achilleas seized. The Liberian-flagged supertanker is currently en route to the United States. Its owner, Capital Ship Management Corp. had alerted the U.S. authorities to the possibility that it had unknowingly been carrying Iranian oil.
The origin of the two million barrels was allegedly concealed through ship-to-ship transfers and falsified documents. Iranian authorities have so far not commented on the case.
Four tankers from Iran already seized in 2020 by the United States
The United States had already seized four tankers containing oil from Iran in 2020. The Iranian oil minister said at the time that neither the ships nor the cargo belonged to Iran. According to him, the seized oil had been sold FOB (free on board) to Venezuela. This means that Iran had received payment for the cargo.
Iranians accused of terrorism
The United States uses its anti-terrorism laws to justify seizures of foreign cargo ships. These extraterritorial laws allow the country to prosecute anyone who has economic relations with persons considered to be terrorists.
However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds forces are rightly considered terrorist organizations. These two organizations, close to the Tehran regime, are said to be the shippers of the oil.
Uncertainties about future relationships
These Iran-U.S. tensions come at a time when it is difficult to say what the relationship between the two countries will be in the years to come. According to sources close to the case, the ship was ordered to go to the United States before the inauguration of Joe Biden. However, no one knows yet whether the new president will be able to distance himself from the legacy of Donald Trump.
Renegotiating the terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Iranians were hoping that Joe Biden would quickly bring the United States back into the Iran Nuclear Deal. This agreement provided for the abandonment of Iran’s military nuclear program in exchange for the lowering of sanctions imposed on Iran. It was one of the diplomatic successes of the Obama presidency but was denounced by Donald Trump in 2018.
Washington then tightened sanctions against Iran. This strategy was aimed at blocking its oil sales as well as ending what the United States saw as its interference in other Middle Eastern countries. It has also led to a sharp increase in inflation, unemployment and poverty.
Joe Biden between Trump and Obama: a renegotiated return
Joe Biden has certainly affirmed his willingness to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. This desire to break with Donald Trump’s presidency cannot be a pure and simple return to the Obama years. This could weaken Biden’s leadership among the American electorate.
Moreover, a radical change in foreign policy each term would risk discrediting American diplomacy. The Biden administration has thus decided that the return of the United States to the 2015 agreement should involve a renegotiation. Joe Biden’s first positions on Iran are thus more in line with Donald Trump’s steps than with those of Barack Obama.
Using Iran’s export dependence to negotiate
Iran’s revenues from its oil exports finance all other activities in the country. They bring in the foreign currency that the country needs to buy foreign products. However, they have been divided by 2.5 between 2018 and 2020. The country is therefore in a situation of extreme vulnerability. This situation is reinforced by the need to purchase foreign medical equipment due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Joe Biden may therefore want to continue to pull on Iran’s heartstrings to obtain concessions in the Iranian nuclear negotiations. But playing with Iran’s nerves any longer could prove to be a risky gamble.
35% of maritime hydrocarbon flows pass off the Iranian coast
The Iranian population is thus hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis and suffers from an exsanguinated economy. discontent is growing in a large part of it. However, the practices of the Americans also seem to have strengthened the support of another part of the population for the Islamic regime.
The conversion of these internal tensions into a violent crisis would have catastrophic consequences for the world’s energy supply. 35% of maritime hydrocarbon flows pass through the Strait of Hormuz, off the Iranian coast.