The Trump administration has accomplished something extraordinary: Its aggressive sanctions have taken two million barrels a day of Iranian oil off the market without driving global prices upward. Tehran is also contending with a deep recession and 50% inflation. Sanctions, according to the architects of the Iran nuclear deal, shouldn’t have been this effective. In 2015 Barack Obama warned that if the U.S. walked away from his nuclear deal with Iran, “the sanctions system unravels.”
Yet the escalating pressure on Iran has an unintended beneficiary: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Sanctions have driven away paying customers for Iranian oil, so Tehran is employing part of its oil surplus to mitigate Syria’s dire shortages.
Five tankers of Iranian crude have arrived at the port of Baniyas since early May, according to commercial satellite imagery from the analysts at Tanker Trackers. Each ship delivers about a million barrels of oil, currently worth more than $60 million. Mr. Assad’s refineries process the crude, turning out gasoline and other products the regime can provide to its armed forces or sell to civilians for cash.
This Iranian oil doesn’t return to global markets, but it does fuel Mr. Assad’s atrocities. As part of his latest offensive, the Syrian dictator is again bombing dozens of hospitals and medical facilities, leading President Trump to tweet: “The world is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”
The president can help stop the butchery by restoring pressure on Syria’s oil supply. Last autumn the U.S. Treasury exposed networks of illicit traders and broadcast a global advisory to the petroleum shipping industry, warning of serious consequences for sanctions violators. Syrian oil supplies dried up rapidly. In the following five months, only a single tanker of Iranian crude arrived at Baniyas. Damascus residents began lining up before dawn to buy cooking gas. The regime cut gasoline rations to one gallon a day.
Then, for reasons that are unclear, Iranian tankers began to breach the sanctions wall in May. The most likely scenario is that the Egyptian government allowed Iranian tankers through the Suez Canal, the pivotal bottleneck for any vessel headed to the Eastern Mediterranean from the Persian Gulf.
Real-time tracking of commercial ships has become widely accessible because maritime law requires vessels of a certain size to have an Automatic Identification System, or AIS, whose signal is public. In March, Egypt blocked a blacklisted tanker from entering the Suez Canal.
All five tankers that reached Syria in May could be seen sailing north through Suez. After departing Egyptian waters, the ships turned off their AIS, which is both dangerous and illegal. Last year, an Iranian tanker with its AIS turned off collided with another ship, caught fire and sank off the coast of China. Its crew of 32 sailors died.
The White House should press Cairo to stop any Syria-bound tankers from transiting the canal as a matter of sanctions compliance and basic safety. President Trump has a warm relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, whom he’s met six times. The price of better relations with Egypt has been Washington’s readiness to play down human rights; the White House now has an opportunity to redeem that compromise by taking advantage of its relationship with Mr. Sisi to help prevent atrocities in Syria.
The case for restoring pressure on Mr. Assad isn’t only humanitarian. The State Department estimates that Iran has spent $16 billion to prop up the Assad regime while its own citizens sink into poverty. The U.S. can force Tehran to spend more on Syria, even as its oil income evaporates.
Iranian leaders have a reputation for patience. Last week Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei celebrated his 30th anniversary in power. He seems determined to outlast Mr. Trump and deal with a more pliable Democratic successor. Yet swift action now can save lives in Syria and make it much harder for Mr. Khamenei and his theocrats to hold on.
Mr. Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.