For the second time this month, an Iranian tanker has delivered nearly a million barrels of crude oil to Syria, relieving the dire shortage of fuel brought on by tougher enforcement of U.S. sanctions. These deliveries indicate the U.S. may need to adapt swiftly to Tehran’s new methods for evading sanctions if it is to maintain pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Through analysis of commercial satellite imagery, the TankerTrackers group determined that a pair of Iranian-flagged tankers, the TRUE OCEAN and the SABITI, made deliveries to the Syrian port of Baniyas on May 5 and May 11, respectively. Since the escalation of U.S. enforcement efforts last November, only one other major delivery of Iranian crude has made it to Syria. Before that, there had been deliveries of one or two million barrels per month. With Brent crude prices in the $50-$86 range for the past year, these shipments had a value of $50-$86 million apiece.
With Iranian crude cut off, Syrian refineries were no longer able to turn out the refined products necessary for cooking, heating, and driving. In April, the Assad regime limited private vehicles to just 20 liters (or slightly more than five gallons) of gasoline every five days. Still, finding gasoline to purchase remains difficult. Hundreds of motorists line up at gas stations before they open, clogging the streets. The Wall Street Journal reported that fights on line are common, “especially when regime officials or militiamen jump the line.”
Syria-bound tankers have a consistent record of concealing their locations by turning off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, a safety measure required by international maritime law. Last year, an Iranian tanker burned and sank in the East China Sea, killing its entire crew, after it collided with another ship while sailing with its AIS turned off.
AIS deception efforts also have limited effectiveness because the size of tankers renders them visible to commercial satellites.
As part of its enforcement efforts, the U.S. Treasury has published a list of 67 tankers of various sizes that have delivered either crude oil or refined products to Syria. The TRUE OCEAN has been on Treasury’s list since its initial publication last November. This raises the question of how it was able to remain in operation and violate sanctions despite its known track record.
Treasury has warned that “insurers, shipping companies, financial institutions, and vessel owners, managers, and operators” expose themselves to sanctions if they provide services to a ship engaged in illicit activity. Undoubtedly, Treasury is looking at the companies that enabled the passage of the TRUE OCEAN and SABITI.
However, the greatest vulnerability of tankers bound for Syria from Iran is that they must pass through the Suez Canal. Last November, under pressure from Washington, Egyptian authorities prevented one tanker on Treasury’s list from passing through the canal. The secretaries of Treasury and State, and if necessary the president himself, should tell Cairo that the U.S. expects its ally to help prevent Iranian sanctions evasion. Indeed, Washington’s strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran depends on international cooperation.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.