Trump government wants to reduce to zero exports of Iranian oil, denying to the regime its main source of revenues
They change offices in a few months. They search their companies for hidden listening devices. They are aware that they are being watched, and they imagine that their electronic items are being hacked. They’re Iran’s oil traders, and they’re suddenly being investigated. “Sometimes I get the impression of being an actor in a spy movie,” compared Meysam Sharafi, Tehran trader.
Since the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, imposed sanctions on Iranian oil sales last year, information on these sales has become a valuable geopolitical weapon. And the business of selling Iranian oil, once a safe and profitable venture for those who are well-connected, has turned into a global game of high-risk espionage and counterespionage.
Traders count on having received all sorts of seductive proposals in exchange for information. Eastern Europeans appeared in Tehran with bags of vodka and red wine, promising to double the Committee of Intermediaries. A man who was told an American scholar offered a monthly advance of US $5000 to those who helped him in his research on the oil industry. Armenian prostitutes disguised as businesswomen proposed a dream vacation.
Oil traders say that foreigners, who allegedly worked for the United States, offered astronomical figures, from US $100,000 to US $1 million, only to the bank account numbers of the Ministry of Petroleum used in a sale. In at least one case, a foreign customer dispatched female agents to test what kind of information a trader could disclose.
Last month, Iran said it dismanted a network of spies and arrested 17 Iranians who would be working for the CLA, coligating information on oil sales. President Trump denied that the suspects, some of whom were sentenced to death, worked for the CLA. Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, banned the disclosure of production data last year, after Washington left Iran’s nuclear agreement and imposed sanctions on exports and oil transactions. “Information about Iran’s oil exports is war information,” he said in July.
Of the ten people who, on average, contact the Petroleum Ministry daily to inquire about buying oil, seven are not real customers. “They seek to know how our entire system works,” he said. The Trump government said the goal of sanctions, which in May has reached even greater rigor, is “to zero exports of Iranian oil, denying the regime its main source of revenues.”
Sale of petroleum
Although the goal has not yet been achieved, analysts calculate that Iran’s oil sales abroad fell considerably, from 2.5 million barrels daily, before the first lead of sanctions entered into force in 2018, to about 500,000. On the other hand, Iran has adopted a series of measures to circumvent sanctions, claim traders and oil experts, turning off GPS locators in their oil tankers, taking the product to the high seas, blending their oil with the Iraqi, Falsifying the shipping manifests to show that its origin is not Iranian. Iran has also made more rigorous its industry trading system and intensified security. Three Iranian traders described the measures for the New York Times, but demanded that their identities be undisclosed, fearing for their safety.
The thousands of brokers who conclude oil business between buyers and the oil ministry have been replaced by a handful of authorized traders. They report to four ministry officials, who divided the market by region: Syria, China, India and Europe. Each purchase plan is customized, depending on who you are purchasing, how much you are buying, and where the cargo is headed.
Buyers are obliged to send representatives to Tehran as a way to protect information and identify legitimate customers. Traders are prohibited from discussing price, boarding or payment with customers. “The space around us became the main concern for security,” said Sharafi, one of the traders. To encourage buyers, Iran sells its oil to about US $4 the barrel below the market price. It also requires an advance of 10% and full payment before allowing the barrels to be unloaded.
The payment phase is monitored with extreme rigor. Bank accounts abroad are opened and closed within a few hours, only the time to make deposits and transfers. While these transactions occur, brokers and buyers are kept under surveillance. As soon as the operation is complete, they are released and can depart. According to the oil traders, the new system is working.
“Our greatest fear of the collapse of the economy has not materialized”, celebrated Farshad Toomaj, Ex-trader who advises the Swedish oil ministry. “Iran has become a very creative and sophisticated country in the pursuit of ways to sell oil.”
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