Iran Accuses UK, US of ‘Piracy’ After Seizure of Tanker Bound for Assad’s Syria

Patrick Goodenough | July 5, 2019 | 4:26am EDT
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A British Royal Navy ship patrols near the detained supertanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar. (Photo by Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)

( – The Iranian regime is accusing Britain of an act of “piracy” after Royal Marines helped law enforcement officers in Gibraltar to seize a supertanker carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in apparent violation of international sanctions against the Assad regime.

A contingent of Royal Marines in a helicopter and inflatable boats boarded the Grace I off Gibraltar and took control of the 331-meter-long tanker in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Local media reports say the detained ship remains at anchor while the 28 crew members are being questioned and investigations continue. Under prevailing law the ship can be held for 72 hours before a court order extending the hold becomes necessary.

Europe and United States are deeply divided over sanctions against Iran, but reported U.S. prodding succeeded in getting Britain to take action against the ship, on the basis of the oil’s destination, not its origin.

The tanker seizure comes at a time when relations between Iran and the E.U. are especially sensitive, as the E.U. at Iran’s behest struggles to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal afloat despite the U.S. withdrawal and restoration of sanctions.

While the E.U. supports Iran’s right to export oil under the JCPOA, the U.S. is pressuring countries to stop buying it, in a broader effort to coerce Tehran into changing its behavior.

Reflecting the sensitivities, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s reaction to the incident did not mention Iran at all, focusing instead on the Syria angle.

British Royal Marines onboard the seized tanker. (Photo: Ministry of Defence, UK)

Hunt in a tweet congratulated Gibraltar and the Royal Marines “for this bold move to enforce Syria sanctions,” and said their actions had “denied valuable resources to Assad’s murderous regime.”

Reaction from a spokesman for Downing Street also focused on Syria: “We welcome this firm action to enforce E.U. sanctions against the Syrian regime and commend those Gibraltarian authorities involved in successfully carrying out this morning’s operation.”

By contrast, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton on Twitter referred to both Syria and Iran.

He noted that the oil was bound for Syria “in violation of EU sanctions,” and added that “America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade.”

According to vessel tracking data cited by Lloyds List, the Panamanian-flagged tanker took on its cargo of two million barrels of crude at an Iranian port in mid-April and then made the long voyage around the tip of Africa, headed for the Mediterranean.

(The website says the Grace I took the long route because a fully-laden supertanker “can’t traverse the Suez Canal due to the water depth.”)

Gibraltar is a tiny British protectorate strategically located near the entrance to the Mediterranean and claimed by neighboring Spain.

Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, in a statement Thursday highlighted the destination of the oil – the Banias Refinery in Syria.

The Banias Refinery, a subsidiary of the Syrian petroleum ministry, has been targeted by both E.U. and U.S. sanctions since 2014, on the basis that it provides financial support to the Syrian regime.

“As the sanctions being enforced are established by the E.U., I have written this morning to the presidents of the European Commission and Council, setting out the details of the sanctions which we have enforced,” Picardo said.

He praised the Gibraltar port, police and customs authorities, and the Royal Marines, for detaining the vessel and its cargo

“Be assured that Gibraltar remains safe, secure and committed to the international, rules-based, legal order,” Picardo concluded.

‘Bullying’ US policy

According to Spanish media reports, Spain’s government is troubled by the incident and may file a formal complaint with Britain.

Spain does not recognize Gibraltar’s territorial waters, but considers them to fall under its jurisdiction.

The Gibraltar Chronicle quoted Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell – who has just been named as the new European Union foreign policy chief – as telling reporters that Britain acted in response to a “demand by the United States” and that Spain was examining “how it affects our sovereignty because it happened in, what we understand, are Spanish waters.”

Iran’s state-funded Press TV commented that, “Since Iran’s tanker was carrying fuel and oil to Syrian people for solely humanitarian purposes, the measure taken by the British government is not only illegal, but also inhumane.”

“Iran and Syria enjoy vast commercial and trade ties and under the international law, Britain has no right to interfere in their relations,” it added.

Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador and lodged a protest, accusing Britain of complying with “bullying” U.S. policy.

The ministry demanded the release of the ship, which it said had been sailing in international waters

Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told Iranian television the actions of the Royal Marines were “a form of piracy.”

The Royal Marines, an arm of the Royal Navy, have a strong historical association with Gibraltar going back to the early 18th century, when they and Dutch forces in a joint operation seized the territory during a European conflict known as the War of Spanish Succession. (The word “Gibraltar” features on the badge of the Royal Marines.)

Much more recently, the Royal Navy was embroiled in a controversy with Iran, when in March 2007, an Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) naval unit seized British sailors and marines off the Iran-Iraq coast, claiming they were in Iranian waters.

The regime held 15 Brits hostage for 13 days during which they were subjected to psychological pressure before then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was releasing them as a “gift” to the British people.

In an earlier incident in the same area, Iran in 2004 seized two British sailors and six marines who were training members of the new Iraqi security forces in anti-smuggling operations. They were held for three days, during which time some were paraded on Iranian television and made to “apologize.”

The U.S. and several other countries accuse Iran of responsibility for sabotage attacks on six tankers near the Persian Gulf since May.

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