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What is Iran doing in the Strait of Hormuz?

In a video released by Iran, a masked commando slides down a rope from a helicopter on to the deck of a US-bound oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman.

Iran took the Advantage Sweet oil tanker into custody on April 27.

A few days later, the US Navy released another video, this one showing Iranian fast-attack boats encircling the Niovi, a Panama-flagged crude oil tanker, in the Strait of Hormuz.

In the span of a week, Iran had commandeered two tankers, threatening shipping and antagonising Washington — the latter a tactic it has often fallen back on in times of economic difficulty at home.

Behnam Ben Talebu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, said Iranian security planners or national security decision makers have a simple philosophy.

“If [they] can’t export oil, no one will export oil. [That] best explains how the regime sees this,” he told The National.

The US has attacked Iran’s economy with heavy sanctions since former president Donald Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018.

Many of the US sanctions have hit its oil industry, frustrating Tehran’s ability to export petroleum.

Mr Ben Talebu said Iran probably sees the maritime seizures as a way to “press for greater sanctions relief” from the US.

In the case of the Panama-flagged tanker Niovi, which had left Dubai and was travelling towards Fujairah when the fast-attack boats intercepted it, the seizure appears to be tied to a previous legal dispute over Iranian-shipped oil.

Tehran on Wednesday announced that the Niovi had been seized because of a private complaint and a subsequent order by relevant judicial authorities, the Irna said, without giving additional details.

“Our belief is that the Niovi tanker was seized as part of a legal dispute. In 2020, Niovi was suspected of transporting Iranian oil to China,” said Claire Jungman, chief of staff of the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran.

But there could also be some internal strife in Iran.

The first seizure was carried out by Iran’s navy, known as the Artesh, while the second one was undertaken by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“The second seizure … could rather be a further sign of internal rivalry between the IRGC and Artesh, more like an assertion by the IRGC that they should be doing these kind of operations,” according to Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute For Near East Foreign Policy.

The latest seizures come as relations with regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, are improving.

In March, Iran and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China.

Analysts in Washington believe Iran may be attempting to further distance Saudi Arabia from the US.

“The Saudi-China relationship, and in general, the GCC-China relationship is something Washington is going to have to contend with, given that the initial grand bargain between America and Saudi Arabia was essentially energy for security,” Mr Ben Talebu said.

“And with changing Saudi energy exports, the direction those exports go, and there is going to be this outsize question as to what an updated version of that bargain looks like for Washington and Riyadh.”

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Friday announced he would be travelling to Saudi Arabia this weekend to develop ties and demonstrate America’s “unshakeable” commitment to the Middle East.
Source: The National News

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