Iran has accused the US of “childish” and “infantile” behaviour after Washington went ahead with the imposition of sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Separately, in another development in the worsening standoff between Iran and the US, a report suggested the Iranians may be successfully using clandestine exports to get around the most aggressive part of the Trump administration’s strategy of strangling the Iranian economy to force Middle East concessions, namely the now three-month-old attempt to force all Iranian crude oil exports off world markets.
The sanctions against Zarif block any property or interests that he has in the US. However, he says he has none.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the US on August 1 of “resorting to childish behavior” and of acting out of fear.
“They were claiming every day ‘We want to talk, with no preconditions’ ...and then they sanction the foreign minister,” Rouhani said in remarks broadcast live on Iranian state television.
“A country which believes it’s powerful and a world superpower is afraid of our foreign minister’s interviews,” Rouhani added, seemingly referring to interviews Zarif gave to US media outlets when he visited New York for a United Nations meeting in July.
“When Dr Zarif gives an interview in New York, ... they [Americans] say Iran’s foreign minister is misleading our public opinion,” Rouhani went on, adding: “What happened to your claims of liberty, freedom of expression and democracy? The pillars of the White House are made to tremble by the words and the logic of a knowledgeable and self-sacrificing man and diplomat.”
Zarif has a long association with the US. He lived there from the age of 17 as a student of international relations in San Francisco and Denver, and subsequently as a UN diplomat in New York. He was Iran’s ambassador to the UN from 2002 to 2007.
For his part, Zarif wrote on Twitter: “The US' reason for designating me is that I am Iran's "primary spokesperson around the world" Is the truth really that painful? It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”
“Reason… is my words”
In another tweet, he said: “We know that calling for dialog & peace is an existential threat to #B_Team. And since reason for designating me is my words, would “US persons” need OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] license to “engage” with me by reading my writings or listening to interviews?”
The “B Team” in Zarif’s eyes is made up of arch-hawks in the White House including national security advisor John Bolton whom, with Saudi Arabia and Israel’s leaders, are, according to Iran’s top diplomat, attempting to goad Donald Trump into a military confrontation with Iran.
Attempting to justify the move against Zarif, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world. The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable.”
Recent months have seen limpet mine attacks on several oil tankers in the Sea of Oman and the shooting down of a sophisticated US drone that Iran says entered its airspace. The US says it is confident Iran was behind the tanker attacks but Tehran denies it was involved. Iran has also lately seized a UK-flagged oil tanker in apparent retaliation to the UK grabbing an Iranian tanker after receiving US intelligence that it was set to breach an embargo on oil deliveries to Syria. Shell and BP are among companies that are presently not sending their own tankers through the Strait of Hormuz, choosing to rely on chartered tankers instead.
Efforts by the US to form an international naval task force to safeguard shipping in the strait, the Sea of Oman and Persian Gulf hit difficulty on July 31 when Germany, which like the other major European powers oppose the US “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, said it would not take part, but wanted to emphasise diplomatic efforts instead.
Clandestine oil flows
The question, meanwhile, of whether Iran is still clandestinely managing to get a substantial amount of its lifeline oil to willing buyers around the world got more interesting on August 1 when Reuters put out a report noting that there are huge discrepancies between industry experts and analysts on the true volume of the Islamic Republic’s present level of Iranian crude exports.
Its report noted that there are “numerous industry sources who believe Iran’s exports are substantially higher than what can be seen by ship-tracking data or confirmed by port officials”.
One tracking tracking service, TankerTrackers.com, told the news agency that it estimated Iran’s exports at between 500,000 to 1mn bpd for July. Some of the exports were said to include what the service’s co-founder Samir Madani called a “sophisticated setup based on cloaked ship-to-ship transfers over a period of two months”, with one China-bound cargo apparently being transferred via four different very large crude carriers (VLCCs).
Another oil industry expert, who requested anonymity, was cited as saying one of Iran’s major buyers has allocated billions of dollars to purchasing crude through mechanisms that the tracking services can’t monitor.
At the other end of the scale, Reuters said Refinitiv—which monitors shipments based on vessel-tracking, port and other data—estimated Iran exported about 120,000 bpd in July, if shipments of condensate, a type of light crude were included.
However, the report, after examining one piece of hard data that is available, namely crude oil pricing, observed that “if Iran’s exports really had plummeted by as much as 800,000 bpd in little over two months, it would be reasonable to expect prices for similar grades of crude to have responded to what would be a major cut in supply”. No such response has occurred.