China Defending Iran in U.S. Oil Tanker War in Persian Gulf

China Defending Iran in U.S. Oil Tanker War in Persian Gulf
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Thursday 27 April saw forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) seize the oil tanker Advantage Sweet as it sailed through international waters in the Gulf of Oman. According to maritime shipping sources, the tanker was carrying an 800,000 barrels of Iraqi Ratawi crude oil cargo for the U.S. oil major Chevron, loaded at Kuwait’s Mina Saud terminal on 25 April. Just a few days later, on Wednesday 3 May, the same Iranian naval forces seized another oil tanker, the Niovi, after it had left Dubai for the port of Fujairah, also in the UAE, via the Strait of Hormuz. Although Iran alleges that this second seizure was pursuant to a legal dispute dating back to 2020 and involving Nimr International and Baslam Nakliyat on the one side and the Marshall Islands-based La Mere Maritime on the other, both seizures occurred after an earlier incident involving the U.S. This incident was the U.S.’s redirection of the oil tanker Suez Rajan, which was loaded with a full crude oil cargo destined for China, despite U.S. sanctions on the Iranian crude oil trade. 

t was, then, China that vouched the tacit support to Iran that enabled the IRGCN to seize the two oil tankers, according to a source who works closely with the European Union’s (EU) energy security apparatus and another with close ties to Iran’s Petroleum Ministry, both spoken to exclusively by last week. “China wants to lay down a clear marker that it will not tolerate U.S. interference in any of its dealings with its major Middle Eastern allies, and Iran is at the top of this list, and this includes any U.S. interference in the flows of oil from Iran to China,” said the Iranian source. “China does not recognise the unipolar geopolitical economic order with Washington at the centre of it that the U.S. continues to try to impose on other countries, and it [China] will not tolerate the imposition of this idea against its [China’s] national interests,” he added. “China has the legal foundation to conduct such [oil] trade under the terms of the 25-year agreement made with Iran and has the right under the same agreement to protect its interests, regardless of arbitrary unilateral sanctions [on Iran] imposed by the U.S.,” he concluded.

Under the ‘Iran-China 25-Year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement’ China has wide-ranging access to several key elements of Iran’s energy, economic, and military sectors. Aside from first refusal on the exploration and development of all oil and gas fields in Iran, and huge discounts for China on the oil and gas produced from those fields, China also wrote into the Agreement several policies that allowed for much greater cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. One of these was the yearly exchange of dozens of senior officers of the two countries’ navies, armies, air forces, and intelligence units, plus technical personnel attached to special projects. Another was the ‘dual purpose’ – military and civilian – rights given to China for its navy and air force to utilise Iranian military and civilian sites for whatever purpose it required. 

Although no Chinese military personnel were directly involved on the ground in the recent seizures of oil tankers, the marker laid down by China through the IRGCN’s oil tanker seizures is clear enough. It demonstrates that China will not accept any interference from the U.S. in any aspect of its expansion across the Middle East, or in the oil and gas flows to China that accompany it. It also demonstrates that China has the capacity, through Iran especially, but also now through Saudi Arabia to significantly disrupt the movement of oil across the world. China, as it has made clear with these two latest oil tanker seizures, now has proxy control of the Strait of Hormuz through Iran. At least 30 percent of the world’s crude oil moves through the Strait at any given time, and often a lot more. The same 25-year Agreement also gives China a hold over the Bab al-Mandab Strait, through which crude oil is shipped upwards through the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal before moving into the Mediterranean and then westwards. This has been achieved as it lies between Yemen – formerly heavily controlled by Iran-backed Houthis, but also now subject to the new China-brokered relationship deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia – and Djibouti, over which China has also established a stranglehold. What the seizure of the Advantage Sweet also now shows is that the Gulf of Oman can no longer be regarded as a safe alternative transport route for oil tankers either.

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