11.09.2019 Author: Seth Ferris

Oil Tanker Off Syria: Sanctions-Busting or “US-Ego-Busting?”


An oil tanker has been spotted off the coast of Syria and with that comes the latest news flash. This is hardly news, given the leading export of that region. But it was an IRANIAN oil tanker! Shock horror! Iran is again breaching sanctions it maintains it is not subject to! Is there no limit to its perfidy?

It is true that the US has previously detained the Adrian Darya 1, and that it now appears to have entered the Syrian port of Tartus, which is described as “Russian-controlled”, in violation of assurances Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave that it would not sail to Syria There also appears to be some confusion over whether it has actually delivered any oil, but the fact the tanker was seen off the Syrian coast, when the US had tried its best to prevent it going there, has caused an international outcry.

The US still has never forgiven Iran for conducting a revolution, a well justified one at that, when the State Department didn’t see it coming forty years ago. Revolutions are perfectly alright if the US promotes them, funds them or can anticipate them, highjack them and have a PR and humanitarian response ready. They are only a problem to the US, a country founded by revolution, if the revolutionaries take advantage of an opportunity others did not see – prove themselves better businessmen, in other words.

This is exactly what Iran is doing with its oil. The West wants it, the West claims it needs it. However, more is involved, as the US has bigger concerns about Iran, foremost of which is its alleged non-peaceful nuclear programme.

So Iran has taken to trading nuclear power for oil. It is prepared to make concessions on its nuclear programme in exchange for the ability to sell its oil products to significant markets. This makes sound business sense from an Iranian point of view, regardless of the importance of its domestic nuclear programme.

Iran is not planning to export its nuclear power, or sell nuclear weapons if it has them, but is not going to turn down oil export income when it can use this, Chinese-style, to hold potential enemies economic hostage. It is again taking advantage of an opportunity. Like any other business, it is pushing as far as it can to see what the political market can bear, with increased nuclear capacity, real or perceived, its counter to any objection by its opponents/customers.

So what now?

The tanker was told not to go to Syria, the Foreign Minister promised it would not go, but it has. Are the EU and US going to spell out exactly what their sanctions say, what authority they have and how they are going to be implemented, which they have consistently refused to do when challenged, merely repeating that “sanctions” are whatever the speaker says they are at any given time?

Hence the reason the US has a problem with the Adrian Darya is not that it is delivering oil to Syria, and by implication to its enemies there. It is because it is exposing US hypocrisy once again.

This has long been alleged to be a Russian tactic – wait for the US to compromise itself by acting contrary to its own values, then do the same thing the US just did and ask what it is doing wrong. Now Iran is getting away with the same thing, it puts the web of lies US foreign policy is based on under considerable strain – and other countries might be allowed to get away with doing that, but not Iran, the branded pariah state.

My lies and your lies

What hypocrisy is Iran exposing? This is revealed in one of the details of this story, which most reports only mention in passing, as if there is nothing extraordinary about it.

The tanker is captained by an Indian, not an Iranian. He is not an Iranian government functionary, or he would have Iranian nationality and diplomatic status. He is a merchant seaman doing his job for whoever hires him, as everyone in that profession, like Christopher Columbus, has done for centuries.

Obviously he has been paid by whoever is in charge of this tanker, whether it is the Iranian government, a maritime transport company or an oil company, to take the ship to a certain place carrying a certain agreed load. If he did not agree with the terms of his engagement, he wouldn’t have taken on the job, as the only people who would subsequently employ him would be criminals, who are not the most reliable or transparent of employers.

No one knows how much the captain was paid to take this ship to Syria, if this was even the original intention. But what we do know, because the US has admitted it, is that he was offered millions of dollars to take the ship to a different destination, where the US could seize its cargo.

You don’t offer people less money than they are already getting if you want them to do a special favour. Iran would have known when the tanker set out that any suspicion that is oil was bound for Syria would arouse US interest. It was the UK which detained the firsts ship, but ultimately had to let it go because it had no grounds for doing so, despite US objections. So if the US wanted to stop the ship it could not use legal means, leaving bribery as the best option.

It is highly unlikely that the captain would have been allowed to keep any millions he might have made from being bribed by the US to divert the ship. His employers would have taken the lion’s share, although he would doubtless have been given a consideration. So those employers knew that there were two ways of earning big money from commissioning this tanker: either they could sell the oil to Syria, in alleged defiance of sanctions, or earn more by getting the US to pay them not to do so.

The US complains, rightly, about Somali “pirates”. Yet here it is supporting a system which actively encourages piracy—American made kind. Let’s not forget America’s claim as why it went to war with Britain for the second time in 1812. It too was about the seas and allegations that American ships were being stopped on the high seas. However, that too is what fairy tales are made of.

If the captain had accepted the offered millions of US taxpayer dollars, he would have gained his employers a return on their investment without breaching any sanctions, and won US trust, encouraging further bribery and corruption. By not doing so, he guarantees the original earnings projection, but leaves the door open for future bribery. It is win-win for the ship owners, and would have been regarded as good business if a US company had done it – but it is criminality if Iran does it, simply because Iran is not allowed to be as clever as the US.

Over the limit, under the counter

Say the captain had taken the bribe, and steered the tanker to a US-controlled port. He would hardly have been arrested, as he had voluntarily given up his cargo to the US authorities. The oil itself would also have been cleansed of criminal associations, as no one could have proved that it had been destined for Syria, or terrorists or Russians, if it never reached there.

What would then have happened to the oil? Would the US have held it in a stockpile, or burnt it or thrown it in the sea? Is it not more likely that it would have used the oil, or sold it on to gain a return on its investment?

This opens up a third front in the bribery business. Many US operations are funded by illicit oil and drug sales, made through the ports of client states, at least in terms of the paperwork, such as Georgia It is no coincidence that the biggest of the internal rows of the Saakashvili government was over whether his uncle, or a third party, would control the Kulevi oil terminal, or that Saakashvili was put in charge of Odessa, a major port with a huge oil terminal, after he was spirited out of Georgia and into Ukraine, like many other aspects of the CIA operation in the region.

Oil seized from an Iranian oil tanker is not likely to be officially accounted for, as it has neither been bought on the open market nor become the proceeds of crime, the “crime” having been averted. So ships seized by the US can supply the illicit operations as well as earning money, like drugs and weapons.

Organised supplies would attract different bribery rates – probably smaller, but guaranteed in consequence. This is how groups like Daesh can mount long term operations, via secured supply lines protected by CIA operatives.

It would be no surprise if we suddenly saw a significant increase in oil tankers being “intercepted” by the US, in great victories for democracy, and then discovered the US had chartered them, via the usual suspects who supply the fake end user certificates for the arms deals. This may be the only way the US can recover from its embarrassment at being outsmarted by another Third World nation.

It is the US which insists that Iran’s domestic nuclear programme is a threat. So the US is keeping that issue on the table, and thus giving Iran the opportunity to win oil export concessions.

In this way Iran can hand control of its purported oil smuggling to the US in exchange for regular cash, without the US having to explain why it is dealing officially with Iranian oil. Another win-win situation for Iran, like Iran Contra, but this one works for the US too.

Floating allegiances

Of course organised bribery only works if you can find enough people to bribe and the right people. If you were going to look in any legitimate business to find them, it would be the maritime industry.

The individuals who work in this industry are not inherently corrupt. But the industry has thrived on selling itself to the highest bidder for many years. It knows how to play this game as standard business practice, and those who want to get ahead in it are schooled in its playbook.

The evolution of speedboats has been driven by the drug smuggling industry. The smugglers buy the latest and swiftest models, even subs. They even buy vessels, better ones are developed for the coastguards, then the smugglers want better ones, and on and one it goes.

How can you prove that a boat designer, manufacturer or retailer knew that their client was a drug smuggler? So the speedboat business is funded by the proceeds of crime, when it could not be from government contracts alone.

Larger ships operate the same way. They have bills of lading and inventories, but also unofficial cargo such as the weapons which did not appear on the Lusitania’s cargo list. The sinking of the civilian luxury liner was used as grounds for bringing the Yanks into WW1.

Obviously this contraband is not paid for at the normal rates, and deals have to be made at the highest levels of companies to enable such practices to be introduced – if there is a problem, paths have to be smoothed by people in authority. Ship = smuggling opportunity, and it cannot be otherwise, as they are difficult to stop or search without justification whilst at sea.

None of this has resulted in the maritime industry gaining a negative reputation. Quite the contrary, it is regarded as an important national resource in every country, and few comment on the deals made to support it. Most of it is indeed fully legitimate, so the side deals are not considered too unusual or important, unless a country like Iran is making them.

A certain level of corruption is considered necessary in most areas of life. But only the US and its allies are allowed to take advantage of it. This demonstrates to them that they are at the top of the tree on merit, because they are cleverer than lesser nations.

Only when that perception is challenged by the likes of Iran and North Korea does corruption pose a wider problem. When the US has given these countries the opportunity to challenge them by its own misconduct, it merely amplifies the problem. But the definition of “superpower” is a state which can consistently make sure that its problems are turned into somebody else’s—at least the blamed is fixed.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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