The Nuke Negotiations and Syria
How Iran’s Oil Artery Is Keeping Assad Alive

Direct transfusions of oil from Iran might be one of the few things keeping Bashar Assad on his bloody throne. Bloomberg reports:

New Bloomberg analysis of tanker movement  suggests Iran has sent about 10 million barrels of crude to Syria so far this year—or about 60,000 barrels a day. With oil prices averaging $59 a barrel over the past six months, that’s about $600 million in aid since January. […]

With most of Syria’s oil and gas producing regions controlled by either the Kurds or Islamic State, these crude shipments from Iran are vital to the Assad regime’s ability to hang on to power, says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This crude is likely being processed into fuel oil at the Banias refinery, he says, where it can be used for home heating oil, for power generation, and as fuel for what’s left of Assad’s military.

“Iran is basically fueling the entire country,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward case of the sort of thing American sanctions are designed to prevent, right? But the U.S., according to Bloomberg, can’t do anything to stop it. Why?

By simply giving oil to Syria rather than charging for it, Iran is able to skirt U.S. and European Union sanctions designed to limit Iran’s crude exports. Under the sanctions regime imposed in mid-2012 as a penalty for its nuclear program, Iran is allowed to sell oil to only six countries: China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. “This is just a blatant violation of U.S. sanctions,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and a supporter of tougher sanctions. “It’s allowing Iran to fund Assad’s war machine with no repercussions.”

This sounds like the sort of thing a creative Administration could figure out a way to stop—quarantines, port or safety inspections, or even more “creative” options. But then again, a creative Administration would have been keen to put pressure on Assad, rather than ostentatiously take its hands off him.

As each day goes by, the Iran deal is looking less and less likely to stick. We’ve said since the beginning we hope for a good deal, and we continue to wish (some would say, hope against evidence) that Secretary Kerry will emerge from Geneva with something effective. But we’re also realists, and we hope someone in the West Wing is making backup plans. This is exactly the sort of pressure point, useful against both Iran and Syria, that the United States will want to look to squeeze should negotiations fail.

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