With Iran aiming to export record amounts of crude oil this year, the US is looking to pressure its biggest customer into backing off.
US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley told Bloomberg Television on Monday that efforts to convince China to back off Iranian imports “going to be intensified”.
“China is the main destination of illicit exports by Iran,” Malley said in the interview.
Iranian news outlet Kayhan International on Sunday reported that the country’s parliament approved a new budget, aiming to export 1.4m barrels per day of crude oil at $85 per barrel.
Iran averaged 1m barrels per day throughout 2021, 20% higher than in 2021, and hit the 1.4m barrel per day mark in December according to data from Vortexa.
The US was most aggressive in attempting to curtail Iranian crude oil exports under former President Donald Trump, who dropped out of a 2015 agreement with Iran that swapped sanctions relief for limits on its nuclear programme in 2018.
The sanctions included a round of blacklisting Cosco Shipping Tanker (Dalian) Co, a subsidiary of China's Cosco Shipping Energy Transportation, which sent charterers fleeing from those ships and tanker rates skyward.
Current President Joe Biden was widely assumed to be more dovish toward Iran, as Biden was vice president when the 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated under then-President Barack Obama.
In the Democratic Party platform ahead of the 2020 election that saw Biden take office it was said the US would stop overusing sanctions, arguing it undermines US interests.
But despite multiple rounds of negotiations, the US and Iran were unable to revive the agreement.
In November, the US went back to levying sanctions on Iran-connected shipping companies, adding Switzerland-based Ukrainian businessman Viktor Artemov and several tankers he purportedly owns for carrying Iranian oil.
The US has also been aggressive in sanctioning Iranian individuals and entities for alleged human rights violations in cracking down on anti-government protests that intensified in September following the death of a 22-year-old woman after being beaten by morality police.