American Sanctions on Iran and the Underlying Oil War
Adithya Subramoni June 24, 2019/Analysis
In a shocking turn of events, America in 2018 announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action 2015. This came as a surprise to the international community for good reason, because subjecting Iran under harsh sanctions when they kept up their end of the bargain seemed like a punishment from the US for keeping up this good behaviour. President Donald Trump, calling towards the international community and specifically ‘like-minded countries’ for a team effort, said it was time to curb Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism. But his idea to get Iran to re-engage on this field was through the ‘maximum pressure campaign’. This strategy is unlikely to find takers owing to the fact that the nuclear issue and state sponsored terrorism are two completely different issues, and hence need to be dealt with separately. To charge Iran with state sponsored terrorism is completely misplaced. Iran has not caused any damage to US or its citizens in the last twenty five years. On the other hand terrorist acts affecting the US and its allies have almost always had a link to Sunni Islamic fundamentalism with its links to Saudi Arabian Wahabi organisations. The real motive is USA’s geopolitical targeting of Iran. Trump’s recent designation of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary guard corps (IIRGC), a unit of the Iranian army, as a terrorist outfit defies all logic and may become counterproductive to the US interests, the very issue that Trump wants to safeguard.
Iran’s support to Hamas is fundamentally a regional and geopolitical struggle with Israel, while the Sunni vs Shia conflict is a manifestation of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the USA wanted to pressurise Iran on its support to militant outfits like Hamas, it should have ensured it has support of its allies and multilateral institutions. USA’s unilateral action on Iran does not have the support of other members of the P5 +1(Germany) as well as other oil-dependent countries. With the latest round of sanctions, countries with economies having exposure to Iranian trade industry are gearing up to take a major hit. This brings us back to the subject of concern, why take such hasty decisions impacting the global economy without consultations from other members of the P5 + 1?
The exit strategy
In 2018 shale oil catapulted America to the leading position amongst the oil producers. As companies in Texas adopted fracking technology to good use in optimising their oil production, America climbed up to the first position in the oil producers list, surpassing major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia,Russia, Iran and the UAE. Climbing up the oil ladder came at a cheaper price for America considering the OPEC countries, excluding Iran, and Russia had agreed to reduce their oil production to protect the free-falling price of oil. This gave America a free hand at capturing the oil market especially where the demand from emerging economies was increasing rapidly. The only barrier to becoming the largest oil exporter was qualms from the emerging economies and other countries who found the American alternative to be an extremely expensive replacement for their oil needs. With emerging economies deeply dependent on Middle Eastern oil sources, one of the options for America to increase the demand for its oil was by blocking Iran’s oil exports through sanctions. This could give multiple advantages to the US: one is to create economic pressure on Iran; second is to boost American oil exports by eliminating Iran’s oil supply from the market; and third is to strengthen its ally Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of regional domination by squeezing Iranian oil-based economy.
America’s play on executing its exit and sanctions in such a speedy manner may be rooted in the fact that the major countries dependent on the Iranian oil are in the Asian continent. European countries such as France, Greece, Italy and Spain all combined import close to 500,000 barrels a day as opposed to China and India who import close to 600,000 barrels per day and 500,000 barrels per day respectively. With America limiting its oil imports primarily from Canada and Saudi Arabia, and the European Union sourcing two-thirds of its oil requirements from Russia and Saudi Arabia, American sanctions on Iran do not impact the energy requirements of the western power bloc significantly. Hence, it may have been an American expectation that other members in the JCPOA (P5+1) would support Trump administration’s move to scrap the JCPOA and resume the earlier hard line approach of sanctions on Iran. This, however, has not happened.
Unfortunately for America, other members of the JCPOA did not see any justification in the logic and accusation given by the Trump administration and hence, there was no support forthcoming from them. Trump’s disdain for allies and his unilateral approach, virtually demanding complete acceptance from European allies bordered on disrespect and insult to the member countries’ sovereignty and pride. Reaction to Trumps position was one of disbelief and contempt, as his actions displayed, in their opinion, disregard and contempt for international norms and credibility. Quite clearly USA has sought to bulldoze its way through with utter disregard for international institutions and multilateralism, exploiting its domination of the global financial institutions, banking system, and the fact that the US dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
UK, France and Germany together set up Instex – Instrument in Support for Trade Exchanges, to facilitate the trade of medicines, medical devices and food supplies, which trades in Euro through a financial channel having zero exposure to the American financial intermediaries. This marked a milestone in the chapter of American supremacy, where its European allies took a stance against its imposing regime. Though the volume of trade is negligible, the all important European message is that it will not support the American unilateralism. In the absence of any European support, Trump administration should have recognised its folly of trying to impose its decision on its allies, but on the other hand it made it even worse by virtually threatening diplomatic ties with those countries. Others in the P5, such as China and Russia have agreed with the European counterparts to re-examine and review if necessary the terms of the 2015 JCPOA deal and look for ways to deflect and overcome the US sanctions. Iran too, has welcomed the idea and agreed to keep its end of the 2015 deal. Time however, is running out as Iran has demonstrated its loss of patience over the lack of progress on the issue, and has stated on more than one occasion, in the last six months, that it will recommence its nuclear fuel reprocessing and enrichment activities.
Asian approach to the Iranian issue
Asia is the largest customer of crude oil, importing 53% of the global total oil imports, translating to an approximate amount worth $628.2 billion. One major reason for this huge oil influx is the fact that Asia is home to the fastest developing economies such as China and India. Though China and India have maintained that they will continue to import oil from Iran, one issue that concerns all the countries importing Iranian oil is the availability of insurers willing to take up the risk for oil supply from Iran. Most insurers will be cautious to take up projects for fear of losing business and financial access in the West.
With the ongoing trade war with America, China is fighting a dual war. For America, the opponent has been weighed down with two hurdles co-incidentally and conveniently. With the trade war impacting the export industry and sanctions on its oil supplier indirectly hitting the Chinese economy, China may chose well to hit back on America by disregarding the sanctions on Iran. Iran might just have earned itself a powerful ally because of American hegemony. Chinese imports of crude oil from Iran have surged to record levels in April and May. Iran is set to become China’s 2ndlargest supplier of crude oil.
Steering the wheel of attention towards India, Iran is its third largest oil source. Particularly being an oil dependent emerging economy, the sanctions on Iran will force India to look at more expensive oil options. The six month credit line and insurance included price for Iranian oil made it the most lucrative oil supplier in the business. Another issue that has come to India’s doorstep is the longevity of the rupee account based trading system with Iran using the UCO Bank. UCO Bank being the only bank with no exposure to American financial channels is the only means for continued Iran-India trade relations. In light of the US sanctions, India reduced its oil imports to turn eligible for a sanction waiver. This sanction waiver came to an end on 02May 2019, and oil imports stopped owing to the election period as well. Now the primary concern for the new Indian government is to prioritise the Iran issue. Iran is accountable for thirty percent of India’s exports, and given that the rupee account is fuelled by the INR deposited in favour of oil imports from Iran, the systematic reduction of oil import also creates a proportional fall in demand for Indian exports, owing to the curb of Iran’s purchasing power. Since the end of the sanctions waiver, India has stopped import of Iranian oil, hopefully only as a temporary measure.
At the same time, a diplomatic concern that arises for India is its interest over the Chabahar port. Chabahar Port is a major investment arena for India to create a transportation corridor connecting Asia as well as the land-locked Afghanistan with the rest of the world. Though India plans on disregarding the US Sanctions and continuing business through the UCO Bank and Iran’s Pasargad Bank, attention needs to be paid to resolve the reducing Iranian imports, not only to secure India’s exports but also to show Iran the commitment India has towards its diplomatic ties with them and its vested interest in operating the Chabahar Port. Going ahead with the possibility that China would disregard the sanctions on Iran, a reduction in Iranian imports could weaken Iran’s ties to India and pave the path to strengthen Iran-China ties. This would particularly be drastic for India, if Iran were to give China operational rights to the Chabahar port. Needless to say, this would bring in interference from Russia, who wouldn’t be thrilled with the loss of regional trade autonomy to China.
Approaching the dénouement
From a bird’s eye view, the rising conflicts in the West Asian region, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE being the main champions who support the efforts for a change in Iran’s regime, Iran finds itself in a cornered situation amongst its neighbours. If cornered, both strategically and economically, Iran could resort to using its strategic location to choke the Strait of Hormuz by planting sea mines or through any other obstruction mechanism. Though unlikely, as it would put Iran in a very hostile situation with rest of the world, it cannot be ruled out as an extreme last resort measure. This could create major international crisis. It would, as a start contribute to the run up in oil prices and owing to supply security – it is possible that USA stands to benefit immensely in such a crisis.
On the other hand, by imposing sanctions on Iran, America has pushed India to an uneasy corner. Owing to regional ties, it plays to India’s strength to take care of her interests by dealing with Iran and securing operation of Chabahar port. On the other hand it is essential to keep India’s ties with America on an even keel. If it refuses to acknowledge India’s ground interests and resorts to the muscle power of sanctions, China may end up as the beneficiary with a fortuitous win with Chabahar port, leading to an ultimate strategic loss to India and the US.
The situation calls for global introspection into imposing sanctions by a country due to its phenomenal control over the world’s financial channels and the domination of the USD international trade. But this round of sanctions just might be the one where countries figure out alternate solutions together; considering the European initiative of Instex, Asian methods such as the trade using rupee account, Russian and Chinese support towards Iran; to finding a more cooperative and equitable solution that enables the world to trade outside the control of America. The sanctions may have just provided the edge to catalyze the changing world order, but the question is who’ll sit on the throne of the high table when the rubble settles? Or will it be, as it seems more likely, a more cooperative and less competitive, multi-polar world order?
Adithya Subramoni is interning at ‘The Peninsula Foundation’. She has a Bachelors degree in Commmerce from Christ College, Bangalore.
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