Over the past week, the latest phase of U.S.-led sanctions against Iran has dominated the media. For months, the United States has pressured countries to curtail their imports of Iranian crude oil and is now threatening to penalize banks that participate in oil deals with Iran. In keeping with the U.S. sanctions campaign, the European Union on July 1 implemented an oil embargo against Iran. The bloc already has begun banning European countries from reinsuring tankers carrying Iranian oil.
On the surface, the sanctions appear tantamount to the United States and its allies serving an economic death sentence to the Iranian regime. Indeed, sanctions lobbyists and journalists have painted a dire picture of hyperinflation and plummeting oil revenues. They argue that sanctions are depriving Tehran of resources that otherwise would be allocated to Iran's nuclear weapons program. This narrative also tells of the Iranian regime's fear of economically frustrated youths daring to revive the Green Movement to pressure the regime at its weakest point.
But Iran's response to sanctions deadlines has been relatively nonchalant. Contrary to the sanctions lobbyist narrative, this response does not suggest Iran will halt its crude oil shipments, nor does it portend a popular uprising in the streets of Tehran. Instead, it suggests that sanctions are likely a sideshow to a much more serious negotiation in play.
Loopholes in the Sanctions Campaign
The sanctions applied thus far certainly have complicated Iran's day-to-day business operations. However, Iran is well versed in deception tactics to allow itself and its clients to evade sanctions and thus dampen the effects of the U.S. campaign.
One way in which Iran circumvents sanctions is through a network of front companies that enable Iranian merchants to trade under false flags. To enter ports, merchant ships are required to sail under a flag provided by national ship registries. Tax havens, such as Malta, Cyprus, the Bahamas, Hong Kong, the Seychelles, Singapore and the Isle of Man, profit from selling flags and company registries to businesses looking to evade the taxes and regulations of their home countries. Iranian businessmen rely heavily on these havens to switch out flags, names, registered owners and agents, and addresses of owners and agents.