By imposing a raft of sanctions on global companies that are affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or helping Iran circumvent sanctions, the US is showing it is serious in its efforts to clip Iran's wings, experts said.
The latest round of US sanctions has delivered a severe blow to the Iranian regime's ability to gain illicit funding, which it has used to fuel conflicts in the region through the IRGC Quds Force and its proxies, they told Al-Mashareq.
Iran's oil trade, a key source of revenue for the country, is one of the sectors that has faced the most scrutiny and pressure.
The US Treasury imposed sanctions on a large shipping network last year that is directed by and financially supports the IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hizbullah.
Oil worth hundreds of millions of dollars has been moved through this network for the benefit of the Syrian regime, Hizbullah, and other illicit actors, the Treasury said in its September 4th designation.
Senior IRGC-QF official and former Iranian Minister of Petroleum Rostam Qasemi oversees the network, which includes dozens of ship managers, vessels and facilitators, the Treasury said.
This complex network of intermediaries enables the IRGC-QF to conceal its involvement in selling Iranian oil, according to the Treasury.
"Treasury's action against this sprawling petroleum network makes it explicitly clear that those purchasing Iranian oil are directly supporting Iran's militant and terrorist arm, the IRGC-QF," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time.
The move "should serve as a strong warning to anyone considering facilitating the Quds Force's oil sales that there will be swift consequences", he said.
Mehdi Group unmasked
"The vast and complex dimensions of US sanctions have caught the Iranian regime off guard," economist Behzad Gonabadi told Al-Mashareq.
These include the May 20th designation of an Iranian government minister and senior law enforcement and military officials over human rights abuses.
Last June, Iran's Oil Minister acknowledged the US has made it more difficult to circumvent sanctions, with the tone of his remarks revealing "how much intolerable pressure is being put on Iran's government", Gonabadi said.
The Mehdi Group, an India-based transportation company directed by Ali Zaheer Mehdi, was included in the September shipping network designations, he said.
According to the US Treasury, Mehdi Group managed vessels and found additional ones with which to move Iranian oil, spreading the management of the vessels across at least 10 subsidiaries and shell companies.
The company, set up by the IRGC-QF, had been circumventing sanctions and smuggling millions of barrels of oil to Syria, along with several of its subsidiaries including Khadija Ship Management Private Limited, Gonabadi said.
This network used to operate in several countries, including Singapore and Lebanon, and the public identification of its provenance and its sanctioning is considered a "blow to the Quds Force", he said.
Identifying secret networks
"Dozens of other hidden networks operate in the region and the world which have been gradually identified and sanctioned by the US," Gonabadi said.
These secret networks "have been spending the resources of Iran's people on the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic's [Ali Khamenei's] childish ambitions in the region for many years through illegal means", he said.
"I believe that just as the sanctioning of domestic repressors is in the interest of Iran's people, preventing the funding of pro-Islamic Republic militia and terrorist groups in the region is also in their interest," he added.
According to Iranian analysts, designating foreign companies for helping Iran to circumvent sanctions has raised the cost of such co-operation, and as a result, the number of groups willing to circumvent sanctions has decreased.
Sanctions that target such companies "are cleverly cutting off the Iranian government's 'oil money' trade routes", Iran-based political analyst Reza Taghipourian told Al-Mashareq.
Tensions over the sale of Iranian oil to Venezuela are a sign of Iran's intense concern over the closing of the oil trade's last loopholes, he said.
"The reality is that if the regime is unable to raise cash by other means, it is possible that its proxy militias in the region might collapse," he said.
This is why the Iranian regime is attempting to obtain gold from Venezuela in exchange for oil, and will accept such a risk to obtain it, Taghipourian added.
Crackdown on Chinese firm
China's largest transportation network, COSCO, also was placed on the US Treasury's blacklist last year as a result of its complicity in circumventing sanctions on Iran.
This move "was highly unexpected", Taghipourian said, noting that COSCO owns about 4% of all existing super oil-tankers globally.
The embargo on COSCO "immediately caused an increase in the price of oil shipments in Asia and increased [overall] costs by about 30%", he said.
"Until now, US sanctions had not been applied to such large companies, and no one imagined that such a thing would happen," he added.
It reached the point where Chinese government officials demanded sanctions be lifted from this company during business negotiations with the US, he said.
Sanctions eventually were lifted on part of the company, Taghipourian said.
"In my opinion, this was a clear message to all non-Iranian companies around the world that if they ignore US sanctions on Iran, their economic interests will be jeopardised," he said.