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August 14, 2020

U.S. Seize Iranian Oil, Vote On UN Arms Embargo Imminent & Implications of Israel-UAE Agreement

This week, tensions rose with Iran again as the U.S. reportedly seized Iranian fuel on the high seas for the first time. Also, the U.S. is set to be rejected in a UN Security Council vote to extend the UN Arms Embargo on Iran. Finally, the UAE and Israel agreed on a roadmap to potentially normalize relations. Please see our analysis and breakdown below:

U.S.  Escalates Pressure By Confiscating Iranian Fuel on the High Seas for the First Time

  • Early Indications That No Military Force Was Used
    • According to the Wall Street Journal, four private vessels—Luna, Pandi, Bering and Bella— carrying Iranian oil meant for Venezuela were seized at sea in recent days, marking the first time the U.S. has confiscated Iranian oil on the high seas. One official said the vessels had been taken over without the use of military force but didn’t provide any details. According to U.S. officials, the four vessels were originally part of a group of 9 tankers, including five Iranian vessels. The four privately owned vessels diverted from their original course after being contacted by U.S. authorities.

    • A report from Reuters stated that a U.S. judge issued a warrant to seize Iranian gasoline cargo after U.S prosecutors filed a suit. However, the warrant for seizure only covered the cargoes, not the vessels. The fuel was then transferred to other ships for transporting to U.S. waters, according to a  U.S. government source. The WSJ report suggested that the tankers carrying the fuel were also seized and were enroute to Houston.

    • U.S. officials suggested that the move was meant to increase the risk premium for private companies who might aid Iran in evading sanctions to sell their own. This at a time when sanctions risks have stopped many international medical and pharmaceutical companies from doing business with Iran, all in the midst of a pandemic.

    • While Iran’s oil trade is sanctionable under U.S. law, no international law backs it as the JCPOA is still recognized by the UN. It is still unclear what the legal basis for the seizure was and if they reference any international statues.
    • Moreover, according to reports, the U.S. has reportedly planned to reveal the seized oil publically in a potential event that could be framed politically in advance of the U.S election. This may inflame Iranian sentiments and provoke them into retaliation in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.
    • In late May, five Iranian tankers carrying at least $45 million worth of gasoline landed in Venezuela, in defiance of damaging unilateral sanctions against both countries. Reports suggested that the Venezuelans planned on paying Iran in tons of gold to avoid sanctions impediments. Last month U.S. federal prosecutors filed suit to seize a new flotilla of tankers that Iran was sending to Venezuela, the latest move in the administration’s effort to expand the maximum pressure campaign on Iran and Venezuela.
    • In response to previous threats from the U.S. potentially confiscating Iranian oil, on May 17th, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying that U.S. “piracy” threatened the “disruption of Iran’s fuel transmission to Venezuela.” A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry Abbas Mousavi also said on May 20th that, “Free trade between independent countries is a legal act. What is illegal is robbery in the sea, which the US is the leader of.”

U.S. Officially Submits Resolution to Extend UN Arms Embargo on Iran

  • Vote on Resolution Expect By End of Day Friday

    • The U.S has officially circulated a resolution that would extend the arms embargo on Iran to members of the UN Security Council. The U.S. hopes to secure enough votes at the UNSC to force a veto by Russia or China. However, there is significant doubt that they will even achieve that low bar. To be adopted, a resolution needs at least nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, Britain or France. The final vote is expected to be revealed Friday night.
    • At the 11th hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a “video summit’ with the P5+1, including Iran, to discuss the Arms Embargo issue and avoid “confrontation and escalation” at the United Nations. In a statement, President Putin said “the issue is urgent,” adding that the alternative was “only further escalation of tensions, increasing risk of conflict – such a scenario must be avoided.”
    • The Arms Embargo on Iran was imposed in 2007 and then strengthened in 2010 to leverage a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. As part of the Iran nuclear deal, the arms embargo is scheduled to expire on October 17th, 2020.
    • On Monday, August 10th, Washington submitted what was seen by many as a maximalist draft of their resolution. It was similar to a draft circulated to UNSC members in June that received a cold reception. It included a laundry list of U.S. grievances against Iran and an indefinite extension of the embargo.
    • After it became clear this week that the resolution would not receive the requisite 9 votes, they streamlined it a day later to win more support on the 15-member council. The new version is just four paragraphs and replaces the original seven-page, 35-paragraph draft.
    • In a statement, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, said the new draft “takes council views into account and simply does what everyone knows should be done – extend the arms embargo to prevent Iran from freely buying and selling conventional weapons.” After the new U.S. draft was put on the UNSC docket, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “Until today, the U.S. has failed politically, and it will fail again…if such a resolution is passed…Its initiators will be responsible for the consequences.
    • With the resolution set for a vote which is surely to be vetoed, attention will turn to the administration’s snap back strategy. Despite having withdrawn from the deal, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials have suggested the US would deploy tortured legal justifications to invoke the “snapback” mechanism in the 2015 nuclear deal that would restore all UN sanctions on Iran.
    • According to the Financial Times, the U.S. compiled a six-page version of the US legal analysis it plans to disseminate to UNSC members to justify the use of the snapback mechanism. In it, they claim the US had “an explicit right” to initiate the snapback sanctions under the UN resolution that endorsed the nuclear deal, and that any argument to the contrary would “create a perilous precedent that could threaten the force of virtually any Security Council decision.”
    • Previously, the State Department said it had a “legally available argument we can assert” to impose snapback, implying that it might not be a legally credible argument after the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA. Snapback is reserved for JCPOA participants in the text of the agreement.
    • As this situation at the UNSC unfolded over the last few weeks, Brain Hook, the U.S. point person on Iran who has overseen the implementation of the administration’s “maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran – and who himself was the subject of an Inspector General investigation into the targeting of Iranian-American civil servant Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, resigned. Hook will be succeeded by Elliott Abrams, an Iran hard-liner who is currently the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela. It was also not immediately clear when Hook would leave his role.
  • Key Takeaways

    • Now with a vote scheduled, and what will surely amount to failure for the administration to extend the embargo, the administration will be able to move onto their true objective. The extension of the UN arms embargo was never the goal, but was simply pretext and political justification to reassert snapback sanctions on Iran and kill the JCPOA to ensure a potential Biden administration cannot resuscitate it.
    • Many predict that the snapback strategy is most likely to lead to confusion and chaos at the UNSC. If the U.S. succeeds to some degree in putting snapback on the agenda, it will assert victory after claiming sanctions have been reimposed; Russia and China will disagree; the E3 will attempt to find middle ground while likely refusing to recognize reimposition; and Iran may make good on its threat to initiate proceedings to withdraw from the NPT and the JCPOA.
    • Amid the short-term fallout, the UNSC might be irreparably damaged in the long-term as a body to address shared global threats. The Trump Administration is threatening the functionality and legitimacy of a multilateral body vital to U.S. interests at the very time when the world needs the U.N. to combat a pandemic, as well as other long term issues such as climate change. Their efforts are exceedingly reckless and a part of a larger effort to accomplish as much of their priorities as possible, with no regard to the damage they cause, all before a potential Trump exit.

UAE Normalizes Relations with Israel

  • Formal Announcement Comes After Years of Backchannel Rapprochement
    • On Thursday, August 13th, the United States, Israel, and the UAE announced in a joint statement a normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE. President Trump lauded the deal in a press conference, stating that he brokered the deal that may lead to a string of bilateral agreements in a variety of sectors, including tourism, security, and technology, as well as opening the door to direct flights between their countries and setting up reciprocal embassies.

    • The three administrations, led by President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed, said in their statement that this “historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region” and that the “normalization of relations and peaceful diplomacy will bring together two of America’s most reliable and capable regional partners.”

    • Moreover, it revealed that “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace.” This is in reference to President Trump’s proposed peace deal between Israelis and Plaestinians that many saw as a disguised effort to justify Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley. The move has been slated for weeks, but was on hold amidst a severe international backlash.

    • The formal UAE-Israel agreement has been a long time in the making.  In June, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, wrote an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper appealing directly to Israelis in Hebrew. As the coronavirus spread throughout the region, the two countries agreed to cooperate on COVID-19 research. Moreover, as far back as 2016, it was reported that growing security ties between the countries developed as the UAE looked to other countries besides the U.S. to expand its growing domestic surveillance apparatus.

    • Palestinian groups, including the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, rose in condemnation of the agreement. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the accord in a statement saying, “The Palestinian leadership rejects and denounces the UAE, Israeli and US trilateral, surprising, announcement.”

    • The statement, read by PA spokesman Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh, went on to say that the deal was a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and the Palestinian cause.” It also urged the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to assemble to “reject” the deal, adding “neither the UAE nor any other party has the right to speak in the name of the Palestinian people.”
    • In a statement, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas said, “the American-Israeli-Emirati agreement is dangerous and tantamount to a free reward for the Israeli occupation for its crimes and violations at the expense of the Palestinian people. It will encourage Israel to perpetrate more crimes and violations at the expense of our people and its holy sites.”

    • However, uncertainty remains if annexation was merely stalled or taken off the table entirely. In his speech concerning the agreement, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that annexation is “still on the table,” and that it is a promise Netanyahu said he is “committed to.” He went on to say that “the United States asked that Israel temporarily postpone annexation,” in what seemed to be a contradiction with their joint statement. Moreover, a statement by Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed seemed to downplay the supposed “nomalization,” stating on Twitter that the two countries “agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”

    • In a press briefing following the announcement, Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner who helped craft this initiative said “we believe that there are other countries waiting in the wings,” referencing that more Arab countries may be unveiling similar agreements in the future. At an earlier press conference with President Trump, The State Department’s point person for Iran, Brian Hook, said, “Peace between the Arabs and the Israelis is Iran’s worst nightmare. And no one has done more to intensify the conflict between Arabs and Israelis than Iran.”

  • Key takeaways

    • Peace over animosity and diplomacy over rhetoric are always welcome. This deal helps create opportunities of dialogue between nations and in some ways, could create opportunities for regional de-escalation. However, the agreement appears predicated on strengthening existing lines of division between Iran and its GCC neighbors by lessening the divide between Arabs and Israelis. The Trump administration likely saw this as a way to build an alliance against Iran and their rhetoric justifying the deal on these grounds only codifies an us vs. them mentality that risks further division.
    • More than perhaps any other constituencies, this harms Palestinian efforts for equal rights or a state of their own. Many Palestinians, not just the corrupt governments that purportedly speak for them, voiced sentiments of betrayal by their fellow Arabs. With annexation still not entirely off the table, just stalled, the accord provides more legitimacy for the occupation and other Israeli actions that will likely continue to violate Palestinian rights.
    • Regionally, the UAE is walking a fine line. While Iran may not have known about the announcement, Iran will have seen this agreement on the horizon and prepared for it. Over the last year, in the wake of the attack on Saudi oil fields and tanker explosions in the Persian gulf, Iran and the UAE began back channel negotiations that recently became more public. Neither country will want to disrupt these conversations, nor preclude a potential Biden administration’s attempt to reduce regional tensions.
    • The agreement could theoretically create a potential backchannel between Israel and Iran, one that would be sorely needed. If Israel becomes more accountable to GCC perspectives regarding regional tensions with Iran, all of whom would suffer immeasurably if a war broke out, such relationships could move the region closer toward regional dialogue that would reduce the Iranian-Israeli competition.
    • A growing relationship with Israel also creates a potential alternative to the UAE’s faltering alliance with Saudi Arabia, insulates them from growing U.S. criticism in Congress, and strengthens a growing bulwark against’s Ergadon’s Turkey. Tensions between Turkey and UAE have flared in Libya, as well as between Israel and Turkey in the Mediterranean Sea. Binding the UAE and Israel further is the threat they see eminitating from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group Erdagon supports. Moreover, the UAE has seemingly outflanked Qatar, its GCC neighbor that has a long history of mediation, by positioning itself as a conciliatory force in the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia virtually cut all ties with Qatar in 2017.
    • While Kushner alluded to other countries taking similar steps, predictions that this may include Saudi Arabia are premature. Unlike the UAE, and smaller GCC countries like Bahrain, the Kingdom is the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and has a long history of supporting and advocating for Palestinian issues. King Salman himself was deeply involved in these efforts when he was the Governor of Riyadh. The Palestinian cause is still very much a part of the cross-border Arab tapestry and remains an important issue for many in the Muslim world. Thus, both top-down and bottom-up domestic politics in the kingdom will make it difficult for them to engage in similar efforts.
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