LONDON—Iran has circumvented U.S. sanctions and exported more oil to China and other countries in recent months, providing a lifeline for its struggling economy and undermining the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.
The scale of Iran’s petroleum sales is difficult to gauge, given their often covert nature. Several firms that monitor the global oil trade say shipments from Iran have roughly doubled from the low levels seen earlier this year, although estimates vary widely.
On the high end, U.S.-based TankerTrackers.com, which uses satellite imagery to follow deliveries, estimated Iranian crude oil exports hit 1.2 million barrels a day over the fall, up from 481,000 barrels a day in February.
Meanwhile, SVB International in Washington said Iran exported 585,000 barrels of crude oil a day in November, up from 230,000 earlier in 2020. Petro-Logistics saw an increase in exports to about 447,000 barrels a day, from 222,000.
The more conservative figures suggest U.S. sanctions have kept most Iranian crude bottled up. But the sharp increase seen across the three market trackers suggests Tehran has been more successful recently in selling its oil.
Secretary of State
said last year the U.S. was aiming for zero oil exports from Iran, having previously sought to drive them below 1 million barrels a day, down from their 2018 pre-sanctions levels of 2.5 million barrels a day.
Among the biggest customers for Iran is China, which, according to Beijing’s official trade statistics, imported 62,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil in October, up from zero in June. Industry watchers said the actual totals were likely much higher and included oil transshipped through other Asian countries.
Venezuela—under socialist leader
long at odds with Washington and under American sanctions—has also started buying Iranian gasoline. And Syria resumed Iranian oil imports this year, according to shipping trackers and an Iran oil official.
Iranian shippers have gone to increasing lengths to evade sanctions, switching off radio transponders to avoid tracking, while operators transporting Iranian crude have changed their ships’ names or doctored bills of lading.
More recently, they have begun transshipments of oil in regions once thought to be too risky, including waters off the coast of U.S. allies Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, according to people familiar with the matter.
American officials acknowledge that Iran is exporting oil, but say sanctions have still caused severe economic consequences for the country,…
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