If US attempts to seize Iranian tankers carrying oil to Venezuela now, de-escalation will be more difficult than ever
To expand its “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign targeting Iranian oil and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command, the US has a warrant to seize the cargo of four tankers heading to Venezuela. We should expect the worst.
Just weeks ago, in May and June, the world watched with bated breath as Iran dispatched five tankers carrying cargoes of gasoline and chemicals desperately needed by the Venezuelan nation, starved as it was of the ability to refine its own gas, due to the US’ stringent economic sanctions. While protesting the move, Washington did nothing to stop it, beyond sanctioning the ships involved. In what appears to be a replay, the Iranian government has now engaged four ships – the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna – to deliver approximately 1,163,000 barrels of gasoline to Venezuela.
In an effort to prevent this, the US government sought, and obtained, a federal forfeiture warrant on the grounds that the sale of the cargo violates the law regarding economic activity conducted by or on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command (IRGC), previously designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization. The Iranian government has condemned the issuing of this warrant as an act of piracy.
How exactly the warrant will be executed, and what the consequences of such an action will be are scenario dependent. One possible scenario would be for the US to attempt a replay of last year’s gambit to bribe an Iranian ship’s captain to steer his vessel to a country that would then impound the tanker and its contents on behalf of the US.
The Iranian ship in question, a tanker named the Adrian Darya, had been seized by the UK on suspicion of violating EU sanctions regarding the sale of oil to Syria, and held in the port of Gibraltar. Iran, in retaliation, seized a British tanker operating in the Strait of Hormuz. After behind-the-scenes negotiations, a Gibraltan judge ordered the Iranian vessel to be released – but not before the US Justice Department had issued a warrant for the seizure of the ship.
Using the warrant as a stick, the State Department had its Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, contact the Iranian captain by email and offer him several millions of dollars to, in effect, defect with his ship and its cargo. The State Department was using a 1984 program known as ‘Rewards for Justice,’ which had been expanded under the Trump administration to target the IRGC by offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that led to the disruption of illicit Iranian activity.
In the case of the Adrian Darya, the effort failed. However, according to information contained in the complaint filed in support of the warrant, the owner of two of the ships engaged in the transport of gas to Venezuela, the Bella and Bering, both sailing under Liberian registry, indicated that he was concerned over what he called “the American threat.” The Iranian middlemen involved in the transaction had pressured him into undertaking the voyage and had offered to purchase the vessels outright, if needed. The key question for all involved is how the captains of any of the four vessels currently underway would respond if subjected to a similar solicitation of money as was made to the captain of the Adrian Darya.
Even if the US wasn’t able to entice a defection from one or more, possibly all, of the targeted tankers, the threat of seizure alone might suffice to compel the captains to abort their journeys and either return to their ports of origin, or seek to transfer the contents of their respective vessels to other tankers willing to complete the task of delivering the gasoline to Venezuela.
The consequences of a ship’s defection would more than likely be treated by Iran as the equivalent of having the vessels boarded and seized in international waters, as the end result – the confiscation of the ship’s cargo – would be the same.
Given past precedent, it is highly likely that Iran would conduct a tit-for-tat seizure of a vessel of similar capacity that was either sailing under the US flag or carrying a US-destined consignment. This would be a risky move that would probably lead to some sort of confrontation between the Iranian and American navies and might very well escalate into a general regional conflict.
Another option is that the tankers would seek to complete their mission by sailing in international waters with their onboard automatic identification system – a transponder that enables the ship’s movements to be tracked by other vessels using satellites – turned off.
This has been the practice that Iranian and Chinese vessels have engaged in during the delivery of Iranian oil to China in violation of US sanctions. Considered a very risky and dangerous move that could result in a collision with other vessels, it also makes a ship difficult to track and therefore interdict.
The US could respond by placing a screen of US naval vessels just outside Venezuelan territorial waters, creating a de facto blockade that the four tankers would have to run if their respective deliveries were to be made. Whether or not the US would actually attempt a boarding and seizure is another question, as it could be seen as a violation of international law. Moreover, the potential for direct conflict with the Venezuelan navy and air force would be high, given their practice of seeking to escort Iranian tankers once they arrive in Venezuelan waters.
In the past, both Iran and the US have shown restraint in seeking to avoid any major force-on-force confrontation between their respective militaries, knowing that once initiated, de-escalation would be difficult, and the transition to a general regional war all but assured. The social, economic, and political costs to all parties involved would be prohibitively high – a universally accepted reality that usually serves as a deterrent against rash action by either Iran or the US. But the present time finds US President Donald Trump in the political fight of his life, with polls indicating a difficult, uphill fight for re-election in November.
By undertaking this attempted delivery of gasoline to Venezuela, the Iranian government has placed Trump in a dilemma that he’s worsened by seeking, and getting, a warrant for the seizure of the involved tankers. Any inaction on the part of the US will be seized on by Trump’s political opponents as a sign of his impotence as a national leader, while a seizure that results in a war with Iran would destroy any chance of the post-pandemic economic recovery he’s betting on to help carry him to victory this fall.
Once again, the world is forced to watch while its collective future is decided not in terms of what is best for the global collective, but in terms of how an action is best interpreted from an American domestic political perspective.