Iranian oil rig (Imre.Urhin, Flickr).
In a letter to President Biden, a bipartisan group of senators recently called for increased funding to enable the Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) to re-initiate its policy of seizing Iranian oil tankers — a move not attempted since mid-2022. The senators' letter coincided with an Iranian seizure of a U.S.-bound vessel the very same day, prompting condemnation from the U.S. government and heightening international tensions. U.S. seizures of Iranian vessels follow the reimposition of heavy sanctions on Iran — a result of the abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal — and pose the potential for escalation by both sides in a retaliatory cycle.
Tariffs on Iran
In the past, the U.S. has seized Iranian vessels to enforce its tariff policy on "virtually all direct and indirect transactions involving Iran" (Office of Foreign Assets Control) following the failed Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under this plan, Iran would have significantly dismantled its nuclear program in return for the lifting of billions of dollars worth of sanctions. The effects of U.S. and international sanctions have become painfully evident for many in Iran; over the past few years, living costs have risen, the country has entered recession, and the value of the Iranian rial has halved. To enforce these strict sanctions, the U.S. has been involved in the seizure of several Iranian oil tankers, although these incidents generally came to a halt in mid-2022 when the Greek judiciary system required the U.S. government to return two tankers to Iran.
The HSI's Enforcement Program
The focus of the bipartisan senators' letter to the President, spearheaded by Democrat Joe Manchin, was to urge the President to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and a lack of funding from the Treasury Department to Homeland Security Investigations. According to the senators, the HSI's program of enforcing U.S. sanctions, most notably the seizure of Iranian oil tankers, "makes the United States and its allies safer, provides funds to remediate the victims of terrorism, and generates income for the United States in a cost-effective manner" (ABC News). These reasons, the senators argued, thoroughly justified a return to the U.S.'s policies of seizing and utilizing Iranian oil. While the domestic scene was clearly of prominence to the senators' perspective, global factors were likely an additional pressure. The senators advocated for a tougher policy on Iran following a 35% rise in Iranian exports despite U.S. and international sanctions, as well as motions by the Iranian government to seize U.S.-bound ships.
Seizures of U.S. Tankers
In an occurrence of perhaps remarkable irony, videos of Iranian vessels seizing a Texas-bound oil tanker were released the very day the senators' letter was published. Iran's seizure of the tanker, the Advantage Sweet, has been seen by many in the international community as only the most recent manifestation of rising U.S.-Iranian tensions over Iran's advancing nuclear program. Iran's move may also be interpreted as an attempt to gain bargaining chips in a potential negotiation with the West, a strategy it has pursued in the past. Some, such as Calvin Woodward from the ABC News Associated Press, referred to it as a display of "brinkmanship at sea" (ABC News), making reference to a largely Cold War era policy of provoking other nations "to the brink" in order to achieve goals or extract concessions. However the move is perceived, most will agree it will only heighten international tensions between Iran and the U.S., as will the U.S.'s reaction.
According to Reuters, the United States on April 28 seized Iranian oil in retaliation for the Advantage Sweet. Days later, the Iranians were reported to have "seized another oil-laden tanker in retaliation" (Reuters). Although it appears the U.S. government has taken action in accordance with the senators' letter, close observation of further actions will be necessary to keep track of the U.S.'s position on the world stage and whether both nations will choose to escalate tensions. The seizures of oil in international waters are of great importance not only in itself — in the form of millions of dollars of valuable cargo — but also as a display of the prickly international relationship between the United States and Iran. The decisions of both governments will likely hold important implications for future international relations and the nature of U.S.-Iranian relations amid an advancing Iranian nuclear program.
Sources & Further Reading