The United States is warning other countries not to allow Iranian oil tankers into their ports, saying the tankers not only could incur penalties under U.S. sanctions but may be courting "environmental disaster."
The State Department warned the global shipping and insurance industries on November 7 that as part of Washington's"maximum pressure campaign" to get Iran to change its behavior, insuring Iranian tankers will now incur penalties under the sanctions reinstated this week.
Brian Hook, the special U.S. representative for Iran, said that as major insurers withdraw coverage from Iranian vessels, Iran will likely turn to domestic insurance companies that will not be able to cover losses for maritime accidents that could run into the billions of dollars.
"From the Suez Canal to the Strait of Malacca and all choke points in between, Iranian tankers are now a floating liability," Hook told reporters. "Countries, ports and canal operators and private firms should know they will be likely responsible for the costs of an accident involving a self-insured Iranian tanker."
The United States "sincerely hopes" accidents do not occur, he said, but he noted that an Iranian tanker was involved in a major accident in the East China Sea in January that resulted in the loss of the ship and all its crew as well as a massive oil spill.
He said the department has evidence that Iranian vessels are trying to evade U.S. sanctions by disabling location transponders used to prevent collisions -- with the goal of making Iran's oil exports harder to track.
"This tactic is a maritime security threat," Hook said. "These transponders are designed to maximize visibility at sea and turning them off only increases risk of accidents and injuries. Self-insured Iranian tankers engaging in unsafe behavior, with many tons of crude oil on board, [are] courting environmental and financial disaster."
The sanctions that went into force on November 7 target Iran's energy, financial, and shipping sectors and result from President Donald Trump decision to withdraw the United States from Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, which had lifted the sanctions for a time.
The sanctions aim to isolate Iran by choking off its main source of revenue — oil exports — and they are enforced through the imposition of penalties on companies that continue to do business with Iran.
However, the administration granted waivers allowing eight major oil importing countries -- including China and India, Iran's top two customers -- continue buying Iranian petroleum products without penalty for another six months.
Iranian officials have said he waivers provide proof that the United States cannot achieve its goal of cutting off all Iran's oil exports.