Santa Fe New Mexican
Defying U.S. sanctions, Chinese, others get Iranian oil
China is receiving oil shipments from a larger number of Iranian tankers than was previously known, defying sanctions imposed by the United States to choke off Tehran’s main source of income, an investigation by the New York Times has found.
The Times examined the movements of more than 70 Iranian tankers since May 2, when the U.S. sanctions took full effect.
Twelve of the tankers loaded oil after May 2 and delivered it to China or the Eastern Mediterranean, where the buyers may have included Syria or Turkey. Only some of those 12 tankers were previously known to have recently delivered Iranian oil, and an analyst said the scale of the shipments documented by the Times investigation is greater than what had been publicly known.
The continued flow of oil underscores the difficulty the Trump administration has had in using sanctions to bring Iranian oil exports to zero after breaking with allies and partners on Iran policy. The Obama administration had worked with China, Russia and three European allies on the 2015 agreement intended to restrict Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear program. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and to impose sanctions was opposed by those countries.
“You can’t make these kinds of threats if you can’t operationalize it,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University and a former White House and State Department official who helped enforce Iran sanctions during the Obama administration.
“It adds up to a decision that makes them look weak and feckless,” he added. “That shows there are limitations to U.S. power. China and other places are prepared to say, ‘No, we’re not going to follow the U.S. lead.’ ”
The Times reviewed data from MarineTraffic and Refinitiv, two ship-tracking services, as well as satellite imagery from Planet Labs and analysis from shipping and energy experts.
“U.S. sanctions have not stopped Iran from moving oil to the Mediterranean and Asia,” said Noam Raydan, an analyst at ClipperData, which tracks global crude shipments.
It is not illegal under international law to buy and haul Iranian oil or related products. The Trump administration’s oil sanctions, which mainly went into effect in November after the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, are unilateral. The administration granted eight governments permission to continue buying Iranian oil despite the sanctions, but ended the exceptions May 2.
Foreign companies that ignore the sanctions and do business with U.S. companies or banks risk being punished by the United States.
U.S. officials have said sanctions are aimed at cutting off money to the Iranian government to force leaders there to make political change, transform their foreign policy and offer more concessions on the country’s nuclear and missile programs.
While Iran continues to export oil, the sanctions have had a substantial impact. In April 2018, before Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran exported 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. One year later, that figure was at 1 million. In June, after the end of the exceptions or waivers, ships in Iranian ports loaded about 500,000 barrels per day, said Kpler, a London-based company tracking seaborne commodities.