Iran seizes another oil tanker

Briefly: Iranian commandos seized a US-bound oil tanker in international waters late last week in retaliation for an earlier US seizure of an Iranian vessel.

The waters off Iran are home to a fifth of all oil flows in the world, and lately Iran has been plucking oil tankers there like a kid yoinking nigiris off a sushi train.

It all flared up after the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2019. Tehran had agreed to cut its uranium enrichment in return for sanctions relief. But when that deal fell apart, Iran revived its oil sales in breach of western sanctions, and tensions spilled into a broader shadow conflict:

  • 🇬🇧 Iran seized two UK tankers after the UK seized an Iranian ship in 2019
  • 🇰🇷 Iran took a Korean tanker in 2021 after Seoul froze Iranian assets, and
  • 🇬🇷 Iran seized two Greek ships in 2022 after Greece allowed the US to drain an Iranian tanker

This latest seizure continues the tit-for-tat, but with a twist: it turns out the ship was not just US-bound, but also China-owned, and India-crewed. So in an attempt to get square with the US, Iran has poked two other giants as well. Oops.

Intrigue’s take: Iran’s ship seizures have generally avoided targeting US interests directly. It seems to be avoiding triggering a firmer US response. And that suggests US influence (and deterrence) in the region continues to stand.

But there’s a bigger trend: the world’s top importer of oil (including Iranian oil) is now China. And that might explain the muted US response to Iran’s seizures: it increasingly sees these volatile oil supply lines as a problem for Beijing.

Also worth noting:

  • Last month the US warned commercial ships to proceed with caution through the area due to greater risk of Iranian harassment.
  • The US has beefed up its military presence in the region in the past month, deploying a guided missile submarine, extending an aircraft carrier tour, and speeding up a plan to deploy A-10 attack aircraft.
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