May 9, 2023

IntelBrief: Iranian Tanker Seizures Dampen Hopes for Regional De-escalation

Iranian Navy via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • The seizure of two oil tankers by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is ratcheting up already heightened tensions in the Middle East, defying a trend toward de-escalation in the region.
  • Iran’s actions in the Gulf and its support for the Syrian regime and Palestinian militant groups dampen hopes that Iran’s restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia represents a broader Iranian policy moderation.
  • Iran’s actions in the Gulf come amid growing calls by Israeli and some U.S. leaders for more forceful action against Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and Tehran’s support for Moscow’s war effort.
  • The muted U.S. response to the tanker seizures might reinforce the growing doubts among U.S. Gulf partners about the U.S. commitment to Gulf security.

In a one-week (late April – early May), the IRGC Navy forcibly diverted two oil tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuzand Gulf of Oman, carrying oil to global customers. The tanker captured on May 3, the tankers, the Panama-flagged Niovi, was taking oil from the close U.S. ally, Kuwait, to the United States. On April 28, the IRGC seized the Advantage Sweet, flagged in the Marshall Islands, carrying oil for the U.S. energy major, Chevron. Iranian officials stated that the Advantage was diverted for investigation following an alleged maritime accident. However, maritime sources assessed the Advantage capture as retaliation for an April 22 U.S. diversion of an Iranian tanker off the coast of southern Africa, pursuant to a reported U.S. court order enforcing U.S. oil sanctions on Iran. In the past, including during several incidents in 2019, the IRGC has sought to justify its diversion of or armed attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf by claiming, without providing evidence, that the ships were involved in commercial disputes or had violated Iranian maritime environmental or other laws. A wide range of reports indicate that the crews of Iran-diverted commercial ships are not generally mistreated. Still, in seizing oil shipments bound for or owned by the United States, the Iranian actions in April and May seemed to represent a direct challenge to U.S. policy.

The tanker shipments injected new instability into the region, introducing uncertainty into what many experts had assessed as a more positive trend toward regional de-escalation, engagement, and reconciliation. In particular, the March 10 China-brokered restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran instilled a sense of optimism that the periodic clashes and tensions between Iran, on the one side, and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, all backed by the United States, on the other, might diminish. Since the finalization of the accord, Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken steps to reopen closed diplomatic facilities and discussed substantial Saudi investments in Iran. Both countries reportedly are encouraging their respective protégé factions in Yemen to restore a formal ceasefire and negotiate a permanent settlement to the Yemen conflict. In a Middle East-focused address on May 4, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan listed  a move toward reconciliation and de-escalation among many of the region’s adversaries and competitors. as a major U.S. diplomatic accomplishment. The Iranian tanker seizures not only contradict the positive diplomatic momentum but also add new tensions to those caused by April clashes between Israel and Iran-backed Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip and in southern Lebanon, where Iran’s main regional ally, Lebanese Hezbollah, holds sway.  Earlier, in March, U.S. forces attacked Iran-backed militia forces in Syria that had fired on U.S. installations in the east of that country, killing a U.S. contractor.

The April militant rocket attacks on Israel represented a response to Israel’s crackdowns on Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem and was apparently not specifically instigated by the IRGC, which supports and advises Palestinian militant groups. Still, Iranian leaders supported the Palestinian attacks, which reflected as well as furthered Iran’s efforts to consolidate its Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian allies into a broader “resistance axis” that can put pressure on Israel. Following the Israel-Palestinian exchanges, and coinciding with the May 3 Niovi tanker seizure, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi visited Damascus to demonstrate Tehran’s support for its main Arab government ally, Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. The visit - the first by an Iranian president since the 2011 Syrian uprising - further antagonized leaders in Tel Aviv, who have authorized increasingly frequent air strikes on Iranian and Iran-backed militia positions and military production facilities in Syria. Iran’s tanker seizures, coupled with its promotion of the Tehran-led resistance axis against Israel, is likely to reinforce the growing calls by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for stepped up U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear and advanced weapons programs, including facilities producing armed drones for use by Russia.

Gulf leaders are eagerly watching how Washington might respond to Iranian seizures of the U.S. bound or U.S.-owned oil shipments as an indicator of the level of U.S. commitment to Gulf security. Regional experts have argued that it was the U.S. refusal to respond militarily to a September 2019 Iranian cruise missile and armed drone strike on key Saudi oil production facilities that caused some Gulf leaders, including Saudi de-facto leader Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and UAE President Mohammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan (MBZ) to question the extent and durability of the U.S. commitment to protect the Gulf and the Gulf states against the threat from Iran. The Gulf re-evaluation of U.S. policy has contributed significantly to the decisions by MBS and MBZ to reconcile with Iran and engage Islamic Republic leaders more consistently and more substantively, as well as to expand ties to China beyond trade and investment into security and political issues.

Yet, the U.S. response to the tanker seizures might not necessarily reassure the Gulf leaders, or some U.S. officials. On May 3, following the second tanker capture, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel outlined U.S. opposition to the Iranian move but did not threaten any specific response. He stated: “…Iran’s harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional and international waters are contrary to international law and disruptive to regional stability and security. We join the international community in calling the Iranian Government and the Iranian navy to immediately release the ship and its crew.” Suggesting that some U.S. officials found the U.S. response insufficient, on May 4, 12 U.S. Senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to remove Treasury Department policy hurdles that have prevented the Department of Homeland Security from seizing Iranian oil shipments for more than a year. Still, U.S. officials are unlikely to escalate tensions with Iran in the hopes of returning to a more positive trend of regional de-escalation and reconciliation.