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Iran Crisis - 2019-2020

Tensions between Iran and the West have risen steadily in the year since US President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 international accord aimed at restraining Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and reimposed economic sanctions against Iran to curb its international oil trade.

Around a sixth of the world’s oil moves through the Strait - 17.2 million barrels per day. This includes most of the oil from Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE and Kuwait. Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of LNG, sends most of its LNG through the strait as well.

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the two countries routinely menaced each other’s oil shipments. In early 2012, Iran threatened to interfere with ships traveling through the strait in retaliation for US and European sanctions targeting its oil sales.

In May 2018 Washington exited the multinational accord that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. It also reimposed and tightened sanctions on Tehran. In July 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that his country was able to disrupt oil tankers passing through the strait, after the US sought to limit Iran's petroleum revenues. The US initially vowed to reduce Iran's oil sales to "zero" under the bans, but it later backed down and granted waivers to almost all of Tehran's major crude buyers. On 21 May 2018 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a far-reaching list of demands for any new nuclear deal with Iran, and threatened economy-crushing sanctions if Tehran does not change its behavior. The 12-point list of demands came in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. At the battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, the movie Braveheart has William Wallace provoking the English to battle.

On 05 November 2018, Washington imposed fresh unilateral restrictions on Iran's energy, shipping, and financial industries, with a stated goal of reducing its oil exports to zero. On 04 December 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to disrupt other countries’ oil shipments through the Gulf if Washington pressed ahead with efforts to halt Iranian oil exports. "The US should know [this] that we are selling and will continue to sell our oil and it will not be able to block Iran's oil exports. And it should also know that if it attempts to stop Iran's oil [sales] someday, no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf," he said. Trump announced oil purchase waivers for China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece. Since then, Italy, Greece and Taiwan halted their Iranian oil imports.

On 08 May 2019 Iran's Supreme National Security Council issued a statement addressing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) member states, stating that the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown considerable restraint in the past one year after the illegal withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA. Iran will scale back more compliance with a 2015 nuclear agreement in 60 days unless they keep promises with the deal.

On 02 May 2019 the United States tightening its economic sanctions on Iran by ending a set of waivers that had allowed some of the country's largest oil buyers to continue their purchases. With the expiration of waivers for eight buyers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would be exerting "maximum pressure" on the Iranian government. The U.S. State Department called the move a fulfillment of the Trump administration's promise "to get Iran's oil exports to zero and deny the regime the revenue it needs to fund terrorism and violent wars abroad."

On 09 May 2019 the U.S. Maritime Administration warned of what it called the " increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf."

Six oil tankers, belonging to Japan, Norway, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, were attacked in two separate incidents in May and June 2019 in the Persian Gulf, while Iran’s Sabiti was assaulted in the Red Sea in October. The right side of the tanker was significantly damaged, with the holes leading to a brief oil leak that was soon stopped. The ship's operator, the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), said in a statement that the damage was likely the result of a missile attack.

While the US attributed the May and June attacks to Iran, despite the latter vehemently denying any involvement and Washington presenting no hard evidence of this, the UAE, which investigated the May incident, concluded that the attack had happened at the hands of a state actor, but failed to name the culprit. Regarding the Sabiti incident, the US didn't issue comments on the possible culprits, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged a thorough investigation into the case, assuming one or multiple state actors were behind it.

However, in September, the US found fault with Iran over a drone attack on a Saudi Aramco oil refinery that forced the national oil company to temporarily shut down a couple of its oil fields. In response, Tehran accused the US and its allies of switching from a policy of “maximum pressure” to that of “maximum deceit".

By mid-September 2019, two new factors had altered the American posture and world perceptions of the American posture. First, with the departure of hardliner John Bolton, the White House was deprived of ideological focus. Second, after the fiasco of the aborted Taliban visit to Camp David, it had become blindingly obvious that Trump's personal interest in foreign affairs was largely driven by photo opportunity meetings with foreign dignitaries, without reference to the actual policy content, if any, of the meeting.

Adrian Darya 1Satellite images released on 03 October 2019 showed that a once-detained Iranian-flagged oil tanker sitting off the coast of Syria has been approached by a smaller Iranian tanker, an indication the ship could be preparing to transfer its cargo. Images released by Maxar Technologies show the Jasmine alongside the Adrian Darya 1, with mooring lines between them and a crane deployed on the larger vessel. The Adrian Darya 1, formerly named the Grace 1, was detained off the British overseas territory of Gibraltar in July while carrying $130 million in crude oil, on suspicion of breaking European Union sanctions by taking the oil to Syria. Gibraltar later released the tanker, after it said Iran promised the ship wouldn’t go to Syria. The ship later sailed toward the Syrian coast, angering Britain.

The oil shipment website said on Twitter on Tuesday that the Adrian Darya 1 was “postured in an STS (Ship-to-Ship) formation with a smaller Iranian-flagged Handymax (350K barrel capacity) tanker,” the Jasmine. It noted this was “not a confirmation of any oil transfer just yet. We’ll compare imagery later.” The image it posted showed the two vessels off the coast of Syria.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly on 23 November 2019 criticized the “deliberate gradual US disengagement” in the Middle East, accusing it of failing to respond to Gulf provocations blamed on Iran. “When the mining of ships went unanswered, the drone got shot. When that in turn went unanswered, major oil facilities were bombed. Where does it stop? Where are the stabilisers?” Parly queried taking the floor at the annual Manama Dialogue on regional security in Bahrain. She added it had been “on the cards for a while” but had become much more apparent in light of recent events.

“The region is accustomed to the ebb and flow of US involvement. But this time it seemed more serious", the French defence chief pointed out. She noted that the US disengagement is a “slow process”, acknowledging that the only recent indicator of Washington’s “commitment” was the US aircraft carrier strike group Abraham Lincoln, which sailed through the Strait of Hormuz to demonstrate the freedom of navigation, as the Pentagon stated a few days earlier.

Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, and her colleague, Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, argued that the deadly pandemic had forced the US to reduce its military presence in the Middle East, leaving countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, a Shia majority country, to deal with Iran directly in the absence of American support. “This has presented Iran with a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate its control in Iraq and push the US entirely out. And the country’s leaders aren’t going to squander their chance,” the two authors wrote.

But according to Bulovali, the showdown has not begun yet. “Iran still does not do much because there is an internal power struggle between moderate forces in the foreign ministry and radicals in the country’s Revolutionary Guards,” he said. “While the Guards defend an aggressive approach by immediately escalating tensions in the Middle East, the foreign ministry advocates a wait-and-see policy until the US elections to see whether Trump will stay or leave,”

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Page last modified: 17-08-2020 14:17:53 ZULU