Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

IRGC commander calls for seizure of British boats after Gibraltar incident

US national security adviser John Bolton said UK decision to impound Iranian ship was ‘excellent news’

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has threatened to seize a British oil tanker in retaliation for an Iranian ship being impounded by UK forces off Gibraltar.

The Grace 1 supertanker was stopped by British Royal Marines on the southern tip of Spain after sailing around Africa, the long route from the Middle East to the mouth of the Mediterranean.

The UK said the ship was en route to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions.

“If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities duty to seize a British oil tanker,” said Revolutionary Guard commander Major General Mohsen Rezaei.

“Islamic Iran in its 40-year history has never initiated hostilities in any battles but that also never hesitated in responding to bullies,” he said on Twitter.

Tehran ramped up tensions with the West on Thursday after it summoned the British ambassador in protest.

On Friday, the Gibraltar Chronicle quoted Attorney General Michael Llamas saying that the British overseas territory’s Supreme Court had granted an extension to July 19 to detain the supertanker following a Friday afternoon hearing.

US national security adviser John Bolton said the British move was “excellent news”.

“America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade,” Mr Bolton said on Twitter early on Friday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to voice “its very strong objection to the illegal and unacceptable seizure” of its ship.

The diplomatic gesture lifted any doubt over Iran’s ownership of the vessel, which flies a Panama flag and is listed as managed by a company in Singapore.

Panama’s Maritime Authority said on Thursday that Grace 1 was no longer listed in Panama’s international boat registry as of May 29.

Shipping data suggests the tanker was carrying Iranian oil loaded off the coast of Iran, although its documents say the oil is from neighbouring Iraq.

While the EU has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, it had never seized a tanker at sea. Unlike the US, the EU does not have broad sanctions against Iran.

The 30 British marines boarded from fast boats and a helicopter after a request from Gibraltar’s chief minister to support the local police operation, the British defence ministry said on Thursday.

“This is the first time that the EU has done something so public and so aggressive. I imagine it was also coordinated in some manner with the US given that Nato member forces have been involved,” said Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who advises firms on sanctions.

“This is likely to have been meant as a signal to Syria and Iran – as well as the US – that Europe takes sanctions enforcement seriously and that the EU can also respond to Iranian brinkmanship related to ongoing nuclear negotiations,” he said.

The operation happened less than two weeks after an attack on pipelines off Syria’s coast that deliver crude oil from tankers to the Syrian refinery. The attack, which a Syrian official said was conducted with the help of an unidentified foreign state, reportedly disrupted a shipment of Iranian crude oil.

Authorities in Gibraltar made no reference to the source of the oil or the ownership of the ship when they seized it, but said they had reasonable grounds to believe it was carrying crude oil to the Baniyas refinery in Tartous, Syria.

“That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria,” Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said. “With my consent, our port and law enforcement agencies sought the assistance of the Royal Marines in carrying out this operation.”

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed Gibraltar’s move.

Tightened sanctions

Iran restarted crude oil deliveries to Syria in May, in defiance of US sanctions, following a lull in shipments since the end of 2018.

The US tightened the screw on Iranian oil exports – its main source of export income – after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and in May ended sanctions waivers for oil importers.

EU sanctions against Syria have been in force since late 2011, shortly after the start of the bloody crackdown against demonstrators calling for greater freedom.

They targeted 277 Syrian officials including government ministers, and froze the assets of 72 entities. The EU also introduced an embargo on Syrian oil, investment relations and froze Syrian central bank assets within its 28 member states.

Grace 1's movements

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the Grace 1 was one of four tankers involved in shipping Iranian fuel oil to Singapore and China, violating US sanctions.

The 300,000-tonne tanker is registered as being managed by Singapore-based IShips Management Pte Ltd.

It was documented as loading fuel oil in the Iraqi port of Basra in December, though Basra did not list it as being in port and its tracking system was switched off. The tanker reappeared on tracking maps near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh, fully loaded.

Homayoun Falakshahi, a senior analyst at London-based energy data firm Kpler, told Reuters the ship had loaded Iranian crude in mid-April from Iran’s export port of Kharg Island.

A maritime intelligence source said the ship may have made the journey around Africa to avoid the Suez Canal, where such a large supertanker would have had to unload its cargo and refill after passing through, exposing it to potential seizure.

Updated: July 7, 2019 04:34 PM

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