Since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, voices in Washington have increasingly chastised the Biden administration for what they say is an inadequate enforcement of oil sanctions against Iran. Bills have now been proposed in the U.S. Congress to prod the administration to better enforce sanctions against Iranian oil.
The broad embargo imposed on the Iranian economy after former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is still in place. But Iranian oil sales have spiked. According to domestic reporting, Iran’s hydrocarbon export income was $42 billion in 2022—a significant increase from $25 billion in 2021 and $19 billion in 2020.
Republicans have charged that the Biden administration has willfully ignored Iran’s evasion of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican who opposes the Iran nuclear deal, accused the Biden administration of walking back the Trump administration’s efforts to stop Iran from exporting petroleum. A lobbying group that championed the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran accused the Biden administration of selectively enforcing oil sanctions and derided its strategy as “maximum deference.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently accused Biden of “choosing not to enforce” Iran-related oil sanctions.
Indeed, the notion that the Biden administration is intentionally allowing Iran’s oil sales has gone mainstream even among seasoned Iran and energy experts. Bloomberg’s Javier Blas said in January that Biden had walked away from the maximum pressure campaign, and that the “conspiracy theorist inside” him believed that Biden is ignoring Iran’s oil exports to contain commodity inflation. Sara Vakhshouri, the president of energy consultant SVB International, claimed that there hasn’t been a serious crackdown on Iran’s oil sales since the Trump administration. And the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Henry Rome argued that while the maximum pressure campaign is still in place, Biden has not systemically enforced it. All three understandably pointed to the rise in Iran’s oil exports during the Biden presidency as the basis for their analyses.
But while Iran’s oil exports have grown significantly during the Biden administration, this trend may have predated his tenure. There is data that indicates that the recovery of Iranian oil sales from their very low levels in early 2020 actually started while the Trump administration was still in office.
In late 2020, firms monitoring the global oil trade reported significant jumps in Iran’s exports. Three prominent firms that monitor the global energy trade reported to the Wall Street Journal that Iran’s oil exports in the fall of 2020 had more than doubled from earlier that year— although their estimates varied widely—as Iran developed more sophisticated evasion capacities and Chinese demand grew.
One must also consider that the decline in the rate of sanctioning does not mean that the U.S. approach has softened under Biden. While the Trump administration’s public foreign-policy pronouncements could, at times, be painfully vague and confounding, the defining of the Iran sanctions effort as a maximum pressure campaign was actually apt. The idea was to sanction entire sectors and key economic nodes of the Iranian economy to induce a shock effect.
Obama administration officials, by contrast, favored a process by which sanctions are ratcheted up over time. They argued that this strategy is best for inducing policy modification in the target state. But the architects of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran abandoned this approach in favor of an immediate scorched-earth strategy. This involved a breathless pace of sanctions designations by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), usually several rounds a week, that blanketed Iranian economic interactions with the world.
The Trump administration imposed so many sanctions on Iran that, in its last year in office, the administration acknowledged coming up short on targets to designate, with National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien stating that the problem with countries such as Iran is that “we have so many sanctions on those countries right now that there’s very little left for us to do.”
In fact, in the final months of the Trump administration, OFAC seemed to be designating already-targeted entities under additional nonnuclear authorities. This was seen by many as an effort to make rejoining the JCPOA difficult for a future administration. Since that agreement was premised on the removal of nuclear sanctions specifically, the imposition of terrorism or other designations on major economic entities in Iran would create new barriers to the resumption of mutual JCPOA compliance.
Considering this, it is unreasonable to expect that the Biden administration would carry out the feverish pace of designating targets that the Trump administration did. But that does not mean that the Biden administration has not tried to slow the pace of Iranian oil sales. Aside from multiple rounds of new sanctions targeting Iranian hydrocarbon exports, petrochemical networks, and sanctions evasion, the Biden administration has also convinced countries to revoke the privilege of flying their flags from ships accused of carrying Iranian oil.
To understand why Iranian oil exports are growing, one must consider both the market and sanctions contexts. Admittedly, the natural opacity of sanctioned trade and China’s petroleum imports makes coming to hard conclusions rather difficult. The nonreporting and lack of transparency have long been key countersanctions strategies that Iran and its business partners exercise with vigor.
That being said, several factors provide greater explanatory value on why Iran’s oil sales have expanded so much.
First, Iranian oil exports during the years of the Trump administration were heavily depressed, not just because of sanctions but also because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated slowdown in the global economy. China’s aggressive zero-COVID policies meant that its importation of petroleum slowed down more than most other countries, and for longer periods of time. So while the anemic Iranian export figures during this time were credited to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, much of the success, in hindsight, was due to the broader slowing of global demand.
Second, the rise of demand after the pandemic receded created new price pressures that likely led China’s small, independent “teapot” refiners, eternally looking to compete with larger, state-run refining behemoths, to seek cheaper oil. The fact that Iran is offering oil at a discount is far more attractive when per-barrel prices are higher.
Third, Iran and China have taken various steps to enhance their economic cooperation in recent years. The two countries signed a 25-year economic cooperation agreement in March 2021 and recently inked a set of deals to operationalize this pact. Iran has also joined both the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement and the BRICS group of countries (which consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and six recently added countries, including Iran). There is some healthy skepticism about the future of Sino-Iranian economic relations, including from this author, but if China wanted to more aggressively serve as Iran’s white knight, encouraging the greater purchase of Iranian oil would likely be the first step toward accomplishing that.
Fourth, for most of the past two decades, China has pursued a cautious strategy in the Middle East that calls for Beijing not to present itself as a major impediment to U.S. designs in the region. This has undoubtedly put downward pressure on Sino-Iranian trade, including in hydrocarbons. This strategy was meant to delay a serious deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations. With that becoming fait accompli, one key reason for Beijing to limit oil imports from Iran was removed.
Commenting on the signing of the 25-year economic cooperation agreement, Hua Liming, the former Chinese ambassador to Tehran, stated that “[s]ince the Carter administration, the US has often reminded China of its relations with Iran, which was seen by Americans as an impediment to the US-China relationship. But with fundamental changes in China-US relations in recent months, that era has gone.”
Finally, since the start of the sanctions campaign against Russia, many new actors have become involved in sanctioned trade. Russia is by far the largest economy to be so thoroughly targeted by a Western sanctions campaign. There has also been a significant expansion of export controls against China during the Biden administration, which forebodes a future sanctions campaign as Washington tries to halt what is seen in many Western capitals as Beijing’s revisionism. As sanctions become the West’s weapon of choice in this new era of great-power competition, there will be a significantly greater financial incentive for Beijing, Moscow, and their business partners around the world to facilitate sanctioned trade.
Obviously, due to the mentioned lack of transparency, we can largely only speculate about the extent to which the natural tendency of states and firms to avoid sanctioned trade has been watered down, but there is some evidence that this is occurring.
The degree to which countries that are usually considered Western allies have allowed their jurisdictions to be used for Russian sanctions evasion shows a pattern that is unlikely to be strictly limited to Russia. The fact that a country such as India would lower its port insurance requirement and resort to nontraditional financing structures to facilitate deliveries of Russian oil shows that the world is adapting to the new environment of heightened sanctions risk, but not always in a way the West would prefer.
Ultimately, the increase in Iran’s oil sales or the slower rate of OFAC designations are not adequate to argue that the Biden administration has taken a softer approach to Iran. It’s not clear that the Trump administration’s more aggressive posture would have fared better against the factors laid out above. As sanctions practitioners have stated, targeted states tend to adapt to sanctions over a period of time, and while they may not recover fully, the impact of sanctions tends to hit a peak and then decline to some extent. Playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole with target adaptation has limits.
For example, if Biden really wanted to take on Iranian oil sales, he could aggressively target the “ghost fleet” of vessels carrying Iranian crude, as well as regional intermediaries in Southeast Asia (which he has done, to a point) and the Chinese teapot refineries that are reported to be the primary purchasers of Iranian oil.
But it’s not clear whether these intermediaries have any exposure to Western markets or financial institutions, and the ghost vessels and teapot refiners definitely have almost none. Thus, OFAC designations may not be particularly effective. If sanctions are deployed against various Chinese companies involved in Iran’s oil industry to no avail, would that make other similar actors more or less likely to engage Iran? Various Chinese entities, such as logistics firms with greater sanctions exposure, have been targeted, but they seem to be continuing their trade in Iranian oil.
Perhaps a broader campaign targeting the financial institutions that serve the teapot refineries can be more effective, but that would require a wider targeting of the Chinese financial system than Washington is ready for at this time. Yet it’s also important to point out that the Trump administration had opportunities to take all of these steps—but it did not do so, either.