The Return of the “Oil Tanker War” with Messages Affecting the Nuclear File

Elijah J. Magnier
After two years of a fragile lull, the “Oil Tanker War” has reappeared in the international arena. Iran has confronted the US through its European ally, Greece, which has been pushed against Tehran. However, the confrontation this time is different as the Iranian message is not limited to the seizure of one or two tankers, but is also a response to the nuclear issue, raising the tension level to a higher point in which things may escalate more than they appear if the US exacerbates.

On April 19, Greece seized the Russian tanker “Pegas” on the island of Euboea, changed its name to “Aframax Lana,” coinciding with the Iranian announcement that the ship belongs to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” despite remaining under the Russian flag. According to what the Greek authorities announced, the tanker, carrying 115,000 tons of Iranian oil, was seized at the request of the US. Its oil was transferred to another Liberia-flagged ship to be delivered to US ports in the act not unlike international piracy.

Iran considered this act a violation of international law. In fact, no judicial authority has the right to confiscate the cargo of an oil tanker and deliver it to another country under any pretext or political pressure, even from a superpower like the US. These acts indicate once again the tendency of powerful nations to no longer respect international law.

The Iranian response was not long in coming: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized two Greek tankers, “Delta Poseidon” (with a crew of 25 men) and “Prudent Warrior” (with a crew of 24 Greeks and Filipinos), which were loaded with Iraqi oil from Basra. This pushed oil prices to $119, increasing the global economic burden and disrupting the already turbulent markets due to Western sanctions against Russia and the thirst for gas and oil after the war in Ukraine.

The two Greek tankers were boarded by Iranian helicopters, embarked with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces, and forced to anchor 11 miles off the Iranian coast. The selection of the two tankers was far from coincidental: the cargo of oil was to be delivered to the US. Iran accepted Washington’s challenge and showed no fear of turning against Greece and (especially) the US. It also indicates that Iran regards European nations as subject to the dictate of the US: the real battle is against Washington, not with any other European country.

This raises questions: The world is familiar with Iran’s powerful method when, in July 2019, the British-flagged tanker “Stena Impero” was stopped after Britain intercepted an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. So the question is: what is behind the mutual piracy of tankers?

The negotiations related to the nuclear issue have ended in Vienna. There is nothing more to discuss, except the US political decision to remove the name and institutions of the IRGC from the terrorism list. This is what the US resists enforcing (not quickly), as some of its officials have leaked to the media that Iran cannot impose conditions that are not related to the nuclear discussion. The US believes that the IRGC should not be removed from the terrorism list because of its growing capability and support for Iran’s allies, which is incompatible with US and Israeli interests. The US pretends to ignore that the IRGC represents the state and that most of its civilian and military institutions are run by its leadership.

This US leak was followed by a statement by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who confirmed that his country would be tough on any “illegal smuggling” of Iranian oil. In addition, the US imposed sanctions on Russia and Iran, which it accused of collaborating to “smuggle and sell oil.”

So there is little room here for coincidence with what is going on, and the exchange of “messages” between the US and Iran is not about tankers and oil, but mainly about the nuclear issue.

The U.S. understands that it must release all of Iran’s frozen funds and loosen Iran’s hands by exporting millions of barrels of oil daily (due to thirsty markets and a desire to reduce the price of oil for its domestic needs). Such a move will return billions of dollars to Iran, which will be even more generous to its allies, who have begun to pose a real existential threat to Israel and US influence in the Middle East.

In fact, if no nuclear deal is reached to stop Iran’s nuclear development, the “Islamic Republic” will extend to the level of the club of full-capacity nuclear states. Consequently, it will no longer be possible to threaten Iran, and the Middle East will enter a nuclear race that will remove the U.S. from its hegemony over many countries.

However, Iran believes that the U.S. keeps the IRGC under sanctions so that it can impose more restrictions under different headings. Iran does not want to lose its nuclear and scientific progress only in exchange for oil or material concessions or the lifting of sanctions that the current or future untrustworthy U.S. administration could reinstate. Since the victory of the revolution in 1979, U.S. sanctions have not impeded Iran’s progress or the development of its allies’ capabilities. Therefore, the country will not accept the tattered deal unless it fits its own terms.

Iran announced that 17 Greek ships sailing in its waters and in the Persian Gulf could be seized if Greece continued to follow U.S. policy. But this message was not directed to Greece, but first of all to the US and the rest of the world. It says that no nation will be able to get oil that ships from the Middle East (19% of the world’s needs) if Iran cannot sell its oil and if the US continues Iranian oil piracy.

The world is paying the price of the maximum sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russia, Iran, and Venezuela raising food prices to an unprecedented level. All three countries are major energy producers and the US has forced the West to make highly costly energy decisions, damaging the interests of Europe (and the World).

With the tanker wars, the U.S. pressured a European country to confront Iran, believing that Tehran would hesitate to oppose Greece, part of the European Community and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. Moreover, the US might also have thought that separating Russia from Europe was a successful step that could be copied and pasted with Iran to deprive Europe of other trading partners and limit the EU’s choices to the US.

Since the bombing of the US military air base at Ain Al-Assad in Iraq in 2020, Iran is determined to impose deterrence on all its enemies with confrontation, without resorting to its allies. Iran believes that it is living in a world ruled by the “law of the jungle” and must fight for its survival without any flexibility. This led Iran to bomb the Mossad base in Iraqi Kurdistan and announce its responsibility for the attack. The previous wars with tankers in the Strait of Hormuz show that Iran will respond to any attack that endangers its sovereignty.

What is happening is not much different from protecting US hegemony and unilateralism around the world, which many countries have begun to reject, confront and challenge. This coming summer is expected to become hotter than today due to the last few months of ‘bras-de-fer’ before the inevitable final signing of the nuclear deal.

Elijah J Magnier is a veteran war correspondent and senior political risk analyst with more than three decades of experience.