What Trump’s Missteps on Iran Have Wrought

ISTANBUL – The drone attack on Saudi Arabia oil facilities on September 14 is jolting the entire Middle East, the latest incident in a months-long battle between the Trump Administration and Iran. Yemen’s Houthi movement claimed credit for the devastating attack that shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blames Iran for the attack, while Iran has categorically denied it.

Let’s not forget that the Trump Administration started this low-level war by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to ratify the agreement, so the U.S. stands in violation of UN resolutions and international law.

At the same time, in almost forgotten incidents, the powers that be in Washington, D.C., are reviving piracy on the high seas. For three months, the Trump Administration has subverted the law, instigated an armed ship seizure, and tried to bribe a ship captain in order to seize an Iranian oil tanker in the Mediterranean.

The United States has become a hi-tech Blackbeard.

On July 4, thirty British marines stormed an Iranian oil tanker anchored off the coast of Gibraltar, a British colony located on the southernmost tip of Spain. United Kingdom and Gibraltar authorities, acting on behalf of the Trump Administration, claimed the ship was violating European Union sanctions by planning to deliver crude oil to Syria.

Those authorities had to bend themselves into pretzels to legally justify the seizure because the action, in fact, involved multiple violations of international law.

In retaliation, Iran seized British and United Arab Emirate oil tankers, and as of this writing, continues to hold them hostage. How did this mess begin?

Making it up as they go along

When the United States engages in piracy, it tries to make it look legal. The ship seizure near Gibraltar was clearly planned in Washington, DC, as revealed by the Spanish daily El Pais. The conservative government in Britain, even before the ascension of Boris Johnson as prime minister, willingly participated in Trump’s tanker takeover.

Based on US intelligence, Gibraltar and British authorities claimed the ship was violating E.U. sanctions against Syria. A careful reading of those sanctions, however, reveals that they prohibit exporting oil from Syria, not delivering oil to Syria. It also turns out that Gibraltar had no law allowing seizure of ships under the E.U. Sanctions So, on July 3, Gibraltar changed its regulations in order to legalize the seizure the following day.

Significantly, no E.U. country voiced support for the US/British piracy. Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and now co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted on July 7:

“The legalities of the U.K. seizure of a tanker heading for Syria with oil from Iran intrigues me. One refers to E.U. Sanctions against Syria, but Iran is not a member of E.U. And E.U. as a principle doesn’t impose its sanctions on others. That’s what the U.S. does.”

Bribery and chicanery

Brian Hook, the State Department’s point man on Iran sanctions, emailed the Iranian ship’s captain offering him several million dollars if he would send the tanker to a port where it could be seized on behalf of Washington.

Like a swaggering buccaneer of old, Hook offered a cash reward followed by a threat. “With this money you can have any life you wish and be well-off in old age, ” Hook wrote in an email seen by the Financial Times. “If you choose not to take this easy path, life will be much harder for you.”

When the captain, an Indian national, didn’t respond to the email, the Trump Administration applied unilateral sanctions on him.

Meanwhile, the United States had secretly launched a cyber attack on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, allegedly disabling key computer systems. Unnamed senior US officials boasted to The New York Times that the cyber attack "degraded" Iran’s ability to disrupt civilian shipping. But it apparently didn’t stop Iran from seizing a British oil tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.

An Iranian official admitted the Stena Impero was seized in response to the taking of the Iranian tanker. On September 16, Iran seized a UAE tanker carrying what it described as smuggled diesel.

The Mediterranean has apparently returned to the buccaneering days of old. If a country seizes one of your ships, you seize two of theirs. Well, shiver me timbers.

On August 16, Gibraltar ignored a last-minute U.S. legal plea and released the Iranian ship. On August 26, the ship was sold to an unrevealed buyer and renamed the Adrian Darya 1. Pegleg Trump and his hardy band of pirates then proceeded to threaten oil brokers and port authorities throughout the region not to allow the oil to be unloaded.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, :We’ve made clear anyone who touches [the tanker], anyone who supports it . . . is at risk of receiving sanctions from the United States.”

Remember, there is no legal authority whatsoever for Pompeo’s threats other than the unilateral US sanctions that are themselves a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, which the UN Security Council had passed unanimously, and is thus violating international law.

On September 15, the Iranian foreign ministry announced that the Adrian Darya offloaded its cargo at an unnamed Mediterranean port, while western countries claim that country is Syria. As of this writing, Iran has not released the British or UAE tankers.

In the days of old, pirates fired canons and boarded ships with cutlasses clamped in their teeth. Today the Trump Administration does it with cyber attacks and stopping wire transfers. Iran has the right to ship its oil to willing buyers. Denying that right is piracy pure and simple.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy – is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.