Russia and Iran try to evade sanctions through oil and gas corridors

The two states are collaborating to evade sanctions through oil and gas corridors, which could affect global energy markets and regional security
Bandera de Irán en uno de los campos de petróleo del norte del país - PHOTO/ARCHIVO
Iranian flag at one of the oil fields in the north of the country - PHOTO/ARCHIVO
  1. Buying Iraqi, Iranian or Russian oil: the West's dilemma
  2. What is Syria's role?

The creation of new pipelines carrying Russian and Iranian gas to the shores of the Mediterranean has generated internal conflicts in the region that could have far-reaching security consequences for the Middle East and the West in the years to come.

On 11-12 May 2024, Iran, Turkey and Russia announced plans for new oil and gas pipeline projects. These initiatives aim to strengthen their collaboration in the energy sector, ensure security of supply and circumvent international sanctions imposed by the US and Europe. The announcements reflect a joint strategy to increase energy independence and capacity, thereby minimising the impact of external constraints. 

El primer ministro iraquí Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (d) y el presidente turco Recep Tayyip Erdogan intercambian acuerdos firmados durante su reunión en Bagdad el 22 de abril de 2024 - PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE /POOL/AFP
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (r) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exchange signed agreements during their meeting in Baghdad on 22 April 2024 - PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE /POOL/AFP

The operation would be carried out through two corridors connecting the Iranian Republic to the Mediterranean via Turkey and Syria. The announcements by Iran on 11 May and Turkey on 12 May to create an 'energy corridor' from Russia to the Gulf and the implementation of a 'land bridge' from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea could increase the volume and scale of arms shipments to southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights in Syria.

In turn, Turkey confirmed that it was interested in buying more gas and oil from Iran. Motivated by Russia's need to circumvent sanctions, allied countries such as Iran, Syria and Turkey could be part of new EU sanctions if the projects are maintained. 

The continued growth of Iranian exports despite sanctions is no coincidence. Since the 1979 revolution, through various mechanisms, the Iranian state has been finding strongholds through which it has been able to continue selling its oil and gas to southern and eastern Europe, as well as to the rest of the world.

Campo petrolífero en territorio Kurdo - PHOTO/ARCHIVO
Oil field in Kurdish territory - PHOTO/ARCHIVO

Maintaining these routes for decades has become a source of pride in Iranian national politics. Tehran and Moscow's plans, if realised, could have far-reaching consequences for the security of the Middle East and the West for years to come. 

Buying Iraqi, Iranian or Russian oil: the West's dilemma

Europe's high energy consumption compared to its available resources has always been a major problem for the governments of the nations that make up the European Union (EU). Whether or not to buy hydrocarbons from these nations has always been a matter of debate in the European Parliament. Applying sanctions and maintaining imports are conflicting concepts.

Úrsula Von Der Leyen, presidenta de la Comisión Europea durante la sesión de aprobación del primer paquete de sanciones contra Rusia - PHOTO/ATALAYAR
Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission during the session to approve the first package of sanctions against Russia - PHOTO/ARCHIVO

Today, the oil fields shared between Iran and Iraq remain the starting point for most illegal energy flows. Both sides continue to drill in the same field, making it impossible to determine the origin of the oil produced. 

Iran simply changed the name of its (sanctioned) oil to Iraqi (illegal) oil with the full consent of Baghdad, where Tehran has long exercised enormous influence through its economic, political and military proxies. 

Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, ministro de petróleo iraní - PHOTO/ARCHIVO
Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, former Iranian oil minister - PHOTO/ARCHIVO

The oil is known to go where Iran wants it to go. The process of concealing the origin of crude oil goes beyond simple changes to shipping documents. "What we export is not in the name of Iran," Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh said in 2020. "The documents are constantly changing and so are the specifications," he added. 

In this regard, Iranian oil (renamed Iraqi oil) tends to go to major enclaves. The first is Asia, where the main destination is China, and the second is Southern and Eastern Europe, especially less restrictive ports such as Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia and others. Establishing a land bridge with southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights region of Syria would have a multiplier effect in strengthening the power of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Soldados israelíes patrullando en la frontera de Israel con los Altos del Golán en Siria - PHOTO/ARCHIVO
Israeli soldiers patrolling on Israel's border with the Golan Heights in Syria  - PHOTO/ARCHIVO

Baghdad is working to restore a direct pipeline to the Turkish coastal city of Ceyhan, which would force Tehran to consider this route between Iran, Iraq and Turkey more reliable. All approved transit routes for transporting Iranian oil to southern and eastern Europe via Iraq will be open to Russia, although Asia (and China) will be less concerned about compliance with any sanctions imposed by the US, not Europe. 

"It is necessary to consider using existing infrastructure and creating new infrastructure to access markets," said Mojtaba Damircilou, secretary general of the Eurasian Department of the Iranian foreign ministry. "Cooperation in this field has started and we have a clear vision," he added. 

The pipeline is expected to run from Kirkuk, Iraq, to the port of Baniyas, overlooking Syria's Mediterranean coast, via the city of Haditha, Iraq, with an initial capacity of 300,000 bpd. Russia is obliged to participate in both plans and this point remains unchanged. 

Campo petrolífero de Nahr Bin Umar, al norte de Basora, Irak - REUTERS/ESSAM AL-SUDANI
Nahr Bin Umar oil field, north of Basra, Iraq - REUTERS/ESSAM AL-SUDANI

What is Syria's role?

The alliance between Russia, Iran and Syria is of concern to the international community because of its potential impact on stability in the Middle East. Iran's goal is to unite the world's Muslim nations in what it sees as "a struggle for survival against the US-centric Western alliance". 

Syria, under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, gives Moscow four enormous strategic advantages. First, Syria is the largest country in the western part of the Shia power zone that Russia has developed over the years to counter the US sphere of influence centred on Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

Second, the country has a long Mediterranean coastline, through which it can transport oil products for financial export, as well as arms and other military hardware for political export. Third, Syria remains an important Russian military hub with a large seaport (Tartus), a large air base (Latakia) and a large listening post (near Latakia). 

Soldados turcos patrullan la ciudad kurda siria del norte de Tal Abyad, en la frontera entre Siria y Turquía - AFP/BAKR ALKASEM
Turkish soldiers patrolling the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Tal Abyad on the Syrian-Turkish border - AFP/BAKR ALKASEM

Fourth, for the rest of the Middle East, it highlights Russia's ability to act alongside authoritarian forces across the region. This strategic alliance could have a significant impact on stability in the Middle East, so it is important for world powers to keep a close eye on this development.