U.S. ‘pipe dream’ of stemming Iranian oil flow

Javad Mohammadali

Staff writer

Since the United States targeted Iran’s oil industry in 2018 in a bid to bring its crude exports to “zero”, the Islamic Republic has devised methods to keep the flow oozing out into the global market. The U.S., under former president Donald Trump, left no stone unturned to pinpoint tankers carrying Iranian crude and bullied oil buyers into halting imports from the Middle Eastern country. Joe Biden followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and maintained the pressure on Iran, though not as relentless as Trump did. During the terms of both presidents, the U.S. seized or ordered others to confiscate at least three tankers filled with Iranian oil.

Despite such measures, the U.S. has never been able to drive Iran out of the market and the major oil producing nation withstood all headwinds. Reuters reported in mid-January that Iranian oil exports hit all-time highs in the last two months of 2022 and were making a strong start to 2023.

Bloomberg also said Iranian shipments of crude oil and refined products were surging, offering solace to the global market. Much of the oil appears to be heading to China, the world’s biggest importer. Data from flow tracking firms showed the Persian Gulf country’s oil exports climbed to about 1.3 million barrels a day in November, and last month held near the highest in four years.

The figures apparently have angered the U.S., as the White House says it will try to retighten the sanctions on Iran oil sales. Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, told Bloomberg Television on Monday that the U.S. will mount pressure on China to stop buying Iranian oil.

“China is the main destination of illicit exports by Iran” and talks to dissuade Beijing from such purchases would be “intensified”.

The U.S. is well aware that the world is compellingly in need of fresh resources to compensate for the Russian oil, which was drastically cut from the global market by Western sanctions after the war in Ukraine.

French President Emanuel Macron had noticed how vital would it be to bring back Iranian oil when he insisted on “diversifying the sources of supply” by including Iran and Venezuela during the annual summit of G7 leaders in Germany in June.

Malley’s remark seems to be aiming to calm domestic critics who had accused the White House of turning a blind eye to Iran’s rising oil sales. One of them is Florida Governor Jeb Bush who had called for pressure on Panama to stop “helping” Iran evade sanctions. Panama caved in and its vessel registry, the world’s largest, said on January 17 that it had withdrawn the country’s flag from 136 ships linked to Iran’s state oil company.

Malley, who had led U.S. negotiators in indirect talks with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, is perhaps trying to boost Washington’s leverage against Tehran to gain more concessions once the stalled diplomatic effort is resumed.

Over the past five years, Iran has proved that, against all the odds, it can find its way into the oil market and that sanctions, be them the “toughest ever”, cannot push it out. Although oil revenues do not anymore serve as the lifeline of the country, Iran, as a founding member of the OPEC, is determined to pump as much oil as possible to demonstrate that the U.S. ambition of alienating the country from energy markets is nothing but a “pipe dream”.