Sanctions, Pirates and Decline of U.S. Influence

By Jamsheed Choksy & Carol E.B. Choksy

The Fars News Agency reports that an Iran-bound cargo ship was boarded and commandeered by Somali pirates during the fourth week of March. The vessel had been transiting waters in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea between Somalia, Yemen and Oman when it was attacked. Currently lost to its owners, the vessel steamed toward a port in Somalia under the brigands' control. Alas for the eager buccaneers, the vessel had been transporting oranges from the Red Sea port of Sokhna in Egypt to the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr in Iran.

Tehran-based Press TV quotes Reza Nourani, head of the fresh fruit importers and exporters union of Iran, as saying: "carrying 5,000 tons of oranges ... the ship, named Talca, belongs to two members of the fruit union." A later report by the same news organization notes the Bermuda-flagged vessel is owned through a corporation based in the Virgin Islands. That company has ties to both England and Sri Lanka as well.

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At first glance the story may seem to have little to do with American-led economic sanctions against Iran or to be of any concern to the U.S. After all, oranges are not contraband nor is Iran a nation to whose aid the U.S. will rush. Yet the shipping method parallels how fiscal and trade sanctions are skirted - through third-party organizations often located in more than one country that are difficult to monitor, let alone regulate. As a result, Iran can boast that despite sanctions its trade with the U.S. amounted to $385 million in 2009, and more recently has doubled since December 2009. In some instances, the sanctions-busting, through air and sea transportation utilizing Third World companies, can have dangerous consequences. Iran has acquired valves and vacuum gauges for nuclear facilities and speed boats for its navy through such maneuvers.

For their part, the Talca hijacking is not the first time that Somali pirates have hauled off Iran-bound items. In November 2008, they hijacked a merchant vessel heading for Iran filled with another innocuous commodity - 36,000 tons of wheat. An Iranian dhow, or fishing boat, was attacked as well last month. Around the same time, another Iranian vessel which had been held for five months and used as a pirate base was finally wrested back by a NATO warship. Far more troubling are reports that yet another freighter, seized by Somalis in September 2008, may have been carrying a deadly chemical or nuclear cargo.

This time around it's unclear how much in ransom the pirates can demand for the crew of 23 Sri Lankans, 1 Filipino and 1 Syrian for the 11,000 ton ship and its perishable oranges. But at least now the pirates and their cohorts can ward-off scurvy. Despite the oranges reportedly having a street value of $4 million, the pirates probably will not receive enough from this citrus treasure trove to invest further in the Kenyan real estate which has been snapped up lately by them. Extensive diplomatic and a growing military involvement in Africa notwithstanding, the U.S. has failed to stem this cross-border flow of currency. Such investments are one means by which the brigands' ill-gotten gains are laundered and then utilized to finance other illicit activities in the region, including terrorism and ethno-religious strife. So societal problems in sub-Saharan Africa will only get worse unless this piracy is stifled.

Iran and Somalia have a startlingly comparable situation vis-à-vis the U.S. The world's self-proclaimed preeminent superpower seems to have little success in quashing either Iranian politicians' nuclear ambitions or Somali pirates' wayward behavior. Iran's government officials and private entrepreneurs have longstanding experience in employing intermediaries to circumvent financial and trade barriers. Yet, unlike American officials, the Somali outlaws seem to have considerable success in embargoing supplies destined for Iran. Moreover, even in the face of a substantial U.S.-led naval presence in the waters off the Horn of Africa, Somali pirates often continue to be successful against maritime targets of their choice.

The U.S. has employed miscreants on other occasions to do its dirty work. So a wag may conclude the pirates can legitimize their actions by offering services in intercepting maritime trade to and from Iran's Persian Gulf ports. Then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remark to AIPAC on March 22 about new sanctions against Iran "that will bite" could take on a whole new meaning - even if they are no longer "crippling," as Washington once intended.

More seriously, the interrelated events involving failure to rein-in Iran and Somalia unfortunately offer further grim testimonial to both the limits of U.S. power and the decline of American influence around the world.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian and International studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in strategic intelligence and information management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.

The views expressed are their own.

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