(CNSNews.com) – The Iranian regime is now denying that an oil supertanker seized by authorities in the British territory of Gibraltar was bound for Syria – but won’t say where it was supposedly headed.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said Sunday that, contrary to Britain’s claims the Grace I was not en route to Syria when boarded and detained by British Royal Marines on Thursday.
The destination was “somewhere else,” he told reporters, without elaborating.
At the same press conference, government spokesman Ali Rabiyee accused Britain and the U.S. of “blatant sea piracy.”
According to ship trackers, the vessel left Iranian waters in April and made the long voyage around the tip of Africa before entering the Mediterranean where the trip was abruptly cut short.
Authorities in Gibraltar ordered the seizure of the 300,000-ton capacity tanker on the grounds that it was taking crude oil to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions targeting the Assad regime and associated entities.
The territory’s Supreme Court on Friday extended the detention of the vessel by 14 days, “on the basis that there are reasonable grounds to consider that the detention of the Grace 1 is required for the purposes of compliance with” E.U. regulation on sanctions on Syria.
Before Araqchi’s Sunday denial, Iranian officials protesting the tanker seizure had not contested the claim that the ship was headed for Syria – or the sanctioned Banias Refinery, as stated by Gibraltar’s government.
Neither had Iranian state and state-friendly media previously disputed that element of the story. On the contrary they accused Britain of adding to the suffering of Syrians by seizing the tanker.
“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,” the state-funded Press TV commented earlier.
In a Saturday op-ed Mohammad Ghaderi, chief editor of the Tehran Times – which calls itself “the voice of the Islamic revolution” – said the Grace I was “carrying oil for the 17 million Syrians who are having a fuel crisis.”
“Blocking transportation of oil to Syria is an obvious violation of human rights and is against all moral values,” he wrote.
Meanwhile a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander who holds a senior position in the regime establishment said that if Britain does not release the Grace I, Iran should seize a British ship.
“Islamic Iran in its 40-year history has never initiated hostilities in any battles but has also never hesitated in responding to bullies,” tweeted Mohsen Rezai. “If the UK doesn’t return the Iranian tanker, the duty of responsible [Iranian] bodies is to seize a British oil tanker in a retaliatory measure.”
Rezai is secretary of the Expediency Council, a body that advises supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is also wanted by Argentina in connection with the deadliest terrorist attack in that country’s history – the 1994 suicide truck bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, blamed on the IRGC Qods Force and Hezbollah.
Although the Assad regime has been under E.U. and U.S. sanctions for years, Iranian oil has continued to flow to Syria.
Last November the Trump administration restored sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and the U.S. Treasury Department then warned shipping owners, operators, and insurers that the U.S. “will aggressively seek to impose sanctions against any party involved in shipping oil to Syria, or seeking to evade our sanctions on Iranian oil.”
The Spanish government – which claims Gibraltar and does not recognize British sovereignty over the territory or adjacent waters – has said that the British government acted against the ship at the instigation of the United States.
Gibraltar’s government in a statement asserted that it had not acted against the ship “at the political behest or instruction of any other state or of any third party.”
Its actions were “a direct result only of it having reasonable grounds to believe that the vessel was acting in breach of established E.U. sanctions against Syria.”
“The decisions of Her Majesty's Government of Gibraltar were taken totally independently, based on breaches of existing law and not at all based on extraneous political considerations,” it said.
The incident comes at a time of escalated tensions surrounding Iran, which the U.S. and allies accuses of a series of provocations over the past two months, including sabotage attacks on six tankers near the Persian Gulf.