For Trump's New Iran Envoy, Oil Tanker Seizure Is First Big Test

U.S. authorities have seized four tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela. This is the first significant American action since veteran neoconservative operative Elliott Abrams took over as President Donald Trump's new special envoy on Iran, following the resignation of Brian Hook last week.

Abrams is also the special envoy for Venezuela, and the seizure—the first of its kind by U.S. forces—sent an uncompromising message to both Tehran and Caracas that Washington will not allow the two nations to defy American sanctions.

U.S. prosecutors filed a lawsuit in July to seize the oil aboard the four tankers, with the ship owners since agreeing to transfer the fuel to other ships so it could be shipped to the U.S. The fuel can then be seized by American authorities once in U.S. territorial waters.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the news that the cargo was being transferred to the U.S. instead of shipped to Venezuela. The four Liberian-flagged ships—the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna—are operated by companies controlled by the Greek Vienna LTD and Palermo SA companies.

Iranian forces boarded another tanker near the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, in a move that may be linked to the U.S. seizure of the Venezuela-bound oil. U.S. Central Command released a video of what appeared to be Iranian special forces fast-roping onto the WT Wila from a helicopter hovering above.

The ship—owned by Bandit Shipping and controlled by Greece-based IMS SA—was held for around five hours before being released. The U.S. military did not suggest any reason for the detention, and the Wila made no distress calls during the operation.

The U.S. has expanded sanctions against both Iran and Venezuela since Trump took office, seeking to undermine the authoritarian regimes in both nations and squeeze the revenues made from oil exports.

Abrams was the special envoy for Venezuela during the administration's efforts to unseat President Nicolas Maduro in favor of lawmaker Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president last year but has since been unable to topple his leftist rival.

The Trump administration and many of its Western allies threw their weight behind Guaido, but Maduro was able to retain the support of the powerful military while buoyed by backing from Russia, China, Cuba and Iran, among others.

Maduro and his allies have accused the U.S. of waging "economic terrorism" against Venezuela, plus plotting to assassinate the president and involvement in a failed coup attempt spearheaded by U.S. mercenaries in May.

Abrams and Trump were unable to guide Guaido to power, and the former must also take on the White House's "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran. Abrams has a history with Iran, having been convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair in 1991.

Since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—i.e. the Iran nuclear deal—in 2018, Trump has been reimposing sanctions on Iran to try and force its leaders back to the negotiating table to agree on a new, more restrictive deal.

Iran has remained stubborn, calling on other JCPOA signatories to stand up the U.S. and dismissing the impact of American sanctions, even though domestic unrest suggests the measures are having an impact.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday that the country would survive U.S. pressure, pointing to fresh infrastructure projects as evidence of Iran's strength. Iran is looking ahead to the November election in the U.S., likely hoping that a victory for presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden will ease pressure on its economy.

Iran, tanker, oil, Venezuela, sanctions, Elliott Abrams
This file photo shows an Iranian flag on board the Adrian Darya oil tanker, formerly known as Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar on August 18, 2019. JOHNNY BUGEJA/AFP via Getty Images/Getty