Iranian tankers laden with gasoline are now traveling to Venezuela. The US Navy could easily capture those tankers still at sea. There is ample precedent. Both the US and Great Britain have legally seized Iranian ships bringing missiles to terrorists in Yemen. Pictured: The oil tanker Fortune, the first of five Iranian-flagged tankers bringing Iranian gasoline to Venezuela, docked at the El Palito refinery in Carabobo, on May 25, 2020. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
In 2015, the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia and China signed an agreement that was named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA. The agreement (which Iran serially violates) ostensibly curtailed Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons -- for a short time -- in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran.
Nothing in the deal called for Iran to: (1) stop development and deployment of ballistic missiles; (2) end the presence of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) terrorist militias in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan; (3) stop its smuggling and trafficking activities in the western hemisphere, or (4) curtail a growing oil-and-gas-related economic and cooperative military partnership with China.
Since the West signed the agreement –which, incidentally, Iran never actually signed -- Iran has never shown the slightest inclination to stop its nuclear weapons activities. There has not been, therefore, a JCPOA quid pro quo for the United States to embrace. As a result, the US has expanded its sanctions into a (not quite) "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran -- already on the economic ropes -- and now has an opportunity plant Iran face down on the geostrategic canvas with a few well-placed economic right hooks (pun unintended).
To do that, there are five actions the Trump administration must take: (1) extending the UN arms embargo on Iran; (2) snapping back economic sanctions on Iran (they were originally loosened as part of the JCPOA); (3) shutting down the smuggling and trafficking networks of Hezbollah in the Americas; (4) stopping the Chinese-Iranian oil and gas pipeline developments through Pakistan; and (5) interdicting if possible Iranian tankers filled with gasoline and headed for Venezuela.
The embargo on Iran selling or importing high-technology military equipment, especially ballistic missile technology, must also be one of the administration's highest priorities. Recently, an IRGC rocket successfully launched a satellite, signaling that Iran is close to a real intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Particularly worrisome is that Russia and China want to sell equipment to Iran that, when combined with Iran's indigenous missile capability, would greatly accelerate Tehran's ICBM development program.
The United Nations ban on Iran importing or exporting advanced military equipment expires this October. A continuation of the ban will require the adoption of a resolution extending the current arms embargo by the UN Security Council.
This necessity means that success for the American plan to extend the embargo is unlikely: Russia and China are permanent members of the Security Council and can veto any such resolution. A veto is likely, given that both have made no secret of their intention to sell Iran tons of new advanced military weaponry.
Nevertheless, close to 400 members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter supporting the administration's work to extend the arms embargo, and 50 former senior US government officials have urged the administration to put the embargo plan's pedal to the metal.
As a result, the US administration has let it be known that it could still sanction any entity selling Iran advanced weapons, especially ballistic missile technology.
Separate from the arms embargo is the possibility of the US unilaterally snapping back those economic sanctions loosened by the Obama administration against nations or entities that invest in or trade with Iran, outside of humanitarian goods.
Some European countries, China, and Russia are actively seeking more trade with and investment in Iran. China, for instance, is trying to build an extension of a gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan and on to China's Xinjiang province with funds from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. US sanctions against this prime target would not only deny Iran an important source of revenue but also deny China an important source of energy.
In addition, a recent opportunity has presented the United States a way visibly to upend another Iranian plan to circumvent sanctions. Iranian tankers laden with gasoline are now traveling to Venezuela. The US Navy could easily capture those tankers still at sea. There is ample precedent. Both the US and Great Britain have legally seized Iranian ships bringing missiles to terrorists in Yemen. With a similar action, the US could both deny funds for Iran's terrorist and nuclear activities and energy desperately needed by the oppressive Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Closer to home, Hezbollah is the biggest smuggler of contraband cigarettes in the Americas. It also traffics in women and children. Both activities should be stopped, especially in view of the Obama administration's reluctance to interdict Hezbollah's Latin American cigarette smuggling gangs.
Iran is economically desperate because of plummeting world oil prices, a huge decline in its economic growth due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and U.S. economic sanctions. Estimates are that Iran's GDP has declined more than 20%, with a loss of at least $200 billion in government revenue that was to fund Iran's military activities. Oil exports alone have dropped from 2.5 million to 200,000 barrels per day.
All these factors point to an opportunity to bring down the totalitarian regime of Iran's clerics. Now is precisely the time to hit Iran economically again -- with further "maximum pressure."
Iran's leaders are on the ropes; it is time to put them on the canvas.
Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute. He is also senior consulting analyst at Ravenna Associates, a strategic communications company.