With Iran's Oil Trade Booming, Republican Senator Pushes Effort to Seize Tankers

Iran oil proceeds topped $80 billion under lax sanctions enforcement

Raisi (Mark Segar/Reuters), Biden (Leah Millis/Reuters)
November 1, 2023

As Iran’s oil proceeds have topped more than $80 billion since the Biden administration took office, a Republican senator is pushing legislation that would fast track federal funding for operations to seize Iranian tankers and use the profits to care for American victims of terrorism.

The bill, set to be introduced on Wednesday by Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, would eliminate bureaucratic red tape that has prevented the Department of Homeland Security from capturing Iranian oil ships before they can offload the illicit crude.

DHS’s investigations bureau—which is tasked with policing Iran’s oil trade—says it is unable to carry out its mission due to "policy limitations" enacted by the Biden Treasury Department, the Free Beacon reported in May. This has allowed Tehran’s illegal oil trade to increase by 35 percent during the past year, providing revenue to Iran’s terrorist proxy groups, including Hamas.

Ernst’s bill is likely to gain traction in the wake of Iran’s support for Hamas’s slaughter of more than 1,400 Israelis. Iran’s oil trade, which has skyrocketed under the Biden administration, is a key funding channel for the hardline regime, allowing it to arm and train Hamas fighters and other regional proxy groups, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have expressed an appetite for cracking down on Iran’s funding streams.

While U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil business remain in place, the Biden administration has shunned enforcement as a way to cajole Tehran into inking a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal. Lawmakers like Ernst, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, say the policy has sent Iran’s terrorism enterprise into overdrive, and that Congress must intervene to force a crackdown on Tehran’s booming oil trade.

"Right now, we are witnessing the chaos Iran-backed Hamas is inflicting on Israel and the world, funded by the IRGC’s illicit oil sales," Ernst told the Free Beacon. "Instead of allowing Iran’s illegal actions to continue, I’m working to cut the red tape and equip [DHS], and its proven record of enforcing sanctions, with the support and resources it needs to go after and stop Tehran."

The legislation would establish an Iran sanctions enforcement fund inside the Treasury Department designed to jumpstart seizures of Iranian oil tankers, which ferry crude to countries like China, Venezuela, and other malign regimes.

The oil proceeds generated from these seizures will be used to care for American victims of terrorism and pay down America’s debt, according to Ernst.

"By removing this money from Iran’s hands, we can provide more support to victims of terrorism and pay down our national debt," the lawmaker said.

The bill allocates $150 million in funding to investigate Tehran’s shipping methods, pay potential informants, stock up on vessels and equipment, and boost operations aimed at enforcing sanctions, according to a copy of the bill reviewed by the Free Beacon.

The federal government would also have to provide Congress with "a list of each covered seizure or forfeiture" carried out under the bill.

Seizures have slowed significantly under the Biden administration. Ernst and several colleagues pressed U.S. officials on the matter in May, but Tehran’s oil trade has continued to soar.

The United States had firm intelligence on at least six Iranian ships earlier this year, but failed to act, the Free Beacon reported in August.