The strategic Strait of Hormuz has been a source of tension between the US and Iran for some time. The US military’s Central Command recently published a black-and-white video showing that the Iranian Navy boarded and briefly seized a Liberian-flagged oil tanker called the MT Wila in the Strait.
The video also showed that special forces were fast-roping down a helicopter onto the MT Wila, whose last position appeared to be off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates near the city of Khorfakkan.
The Iranian Navy captured the vessel for approximately five hours before releasing it on Wednesday, according to a US military official who spoke to the Associated Press. So far, no reason has been given for the vessel’s seizure.
US Sanctions are Having a Limited Effect
In July, an oil tanker wanted by the US was “hijacked” off the coast of the United Arab Emirates after supposedly smuggling Iranian crude oil.
US President Donald Trump has provided no response to this latest incident so far, but with a presidential election around the corner, he has a limited amount of time to tackle Iran’s action.
The US President recently pledged to strike a new nuclear deal with Tehran “within four weeks” if he is re-elected in November, according to a video of his remarks from inside a New Jersey fundraiser that was reported on by the Independent. Regardless, it is unclear what a new deal would look like, but it is needed fast if Trump is serious about curbing the threat that Iran poses to peace in the Middle East.
One option that is available to Trump in the meantime is that he could impose more sanctions on Iran. It is clear that the Iranian economy has been badly damaged by both the coronavirus and preexisting US sanctions. Focus Economics states that US sanctions and the coronavirus will cause the Iranian economy to contract sharply for the third consecutive year by 7.3 percent.
Iran is Breaching its 2015 Deal
Whilst US sanctions have succeeded in slowing down the Iranian economy, they are not a long-term solution to the problem. It is clear that they are not preventing Tehran from developing its nuclear program.
Bloomberg’s Jonathan Tirone discovered that the Iranian Government is moving to boost production of nuclear fuel at a crucial facility in Natanz which was struck by apparent sabotage last month. Iranian engineers have already installed piping needed to accumulate higher volumes of material that will be generated by three new centrifuge cascades. This represents an apparent breach of the 2015 Iran Deal that Barack Obama signed during his tenure as US president.
For now, Washington has no choice but to exercise all diplomatic options available to them to exert pressure on Iran. The Trump Administration recently revised a resolution that would extend a UN arms embargo on Iran for an indefinite period of time. The original resolution is due to expire on October 18. The UN Security Council will vote on this resolution on Friday, but Tehran’s allies, China and Russia, have the power to thwart such a proposal and they have already voiced strong opposition to it.
The Trump Administration has few Options Left
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already warned of consequences if the UN approves of such a measure.
The resolution does have the support of Saudi Arabia as the country’s UN ambassador, Abdul Aziz Al-Wasel, said during a conference held in Geneva that Tehran smuggles weapons to militias to destabilize peace in the Middle East.
The Trump administration is right to prioritize a deal with Iran should the US President succeed in getting re-elected in November. But until Trump can produce a coherent plan to achieve this aim, it seems like his options are limited, at least until later on this year. This is why Iran is bold enough to continue to seize oil tankers and enrich its nuclear fuel. Whoever wins the US election this year has an enormous challenge ahead of them.