Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Gibraltar's minister in urgent talks in UK to resolve seized Iranian tanker crisis

Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo continues urgent talks in London in bid to resolve tanker crisis

The Iranian supertanker Grace 1, which was seized by the UK's Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar sailed under the Panamanian flag. AFP
The Iranian supertanker Grace 1, which was seized by the UK's Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar sailed under the Panamanian flag. AFP

Floating tranquilly with waves gently lapping against the hull, it’s hard to believe that the worn-looking Grace 1 is at the centre of a diplomatic crisis that stretches from edge of Europe to the Straits of Hormuz.

But as the vessel laden with 2.1 million barrels of crude unassumingly rests a few miles off the east coast of Gibraltar, overshadowed by its foreboding rock, a war of words is raging across thousands of miles.

Two weeks have passed since British special forces seized the Iranian tanker over suspicions its 2.1m cargo of crude oil was bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions. But the fallout from its seizure continues to escalate.

On the British-controlled peninsula that guards the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, the supertanker, which dwarves the Royal Navy patrol boat guarding it, has become a curiosity for tourists.

“Usually people come to see the monkeys and the rock but now they ask about the tanker,” taxi driver Clive Ward said.

“I drive them past it on the way to the light house now, it’s the best view. We are not happy about it. We are a small place and now we have made international headlines for the wrong reasons. We have been drawn into a dispute which is not of our making and we are not happy about it.

“It’s like the IRA all over again.”

More than 30 years since Britain’s SAS killed three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar over an alleged bomb plot on the changing of the guard ceremony at the governor’s residence in the tiny British overseas territory.

No bomb was ever discovered and the fallout from the incident is still very much alive in the minds of residents today as it was when it happened in 1988.

“The British came in and did what they wanted to for their own purpose and now they’ve done the same again without so much as a thought for us and the fallout this could have," Mr Ward added.

Despite the necessary action taken to stop oil smuggling this week, Mr Ward said residents were unhappy the Iranian tanker was there.

“Now everyone will know of Gibraltar as the place the tanker incident happened. We are all pretty angry about it. We don’t want it here," he said.

Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo made an impromptu trip to London on Wednesday for urgent talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.Their meeting ran well into the night.

It came after Tehran claimed that seizing the tanker was “piracy” and that it would retaliate. On Thursday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed it seized a tanker the group accused of smuggling fuel in the Strait of Hormuz.

The UK this week sent a third warship to the Gulf to protect its tankers after Iran attempted to capture a British vessel.

Despite the furore, the supertanker stranded in Gibraltar is only guarded by a single smaller Royal Navy vessel, occasionally joined by patrol boats.

Dotted beside it are fishing vessels moored three miles off the shore avoiding paying landing fees.

Roberta Carrick moved to Gibraltar from the UK more than 20 years ago.

As she lent on the sea wall looking across at the tanker, she said: “The British should not have interfered. We just want it to be allowed to go on its way, we don’t want it here. This is a lovely peaceful place, we do not want to be caught up in an international spat. We are very concerned about what is happening due to this. Look, hundreds of vessels pass along the Strait everyday, look at the skyline, yet the British have chosen to act on this one. They’ve been very foolish.”

With the tanker’s future still up in the air, Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt attempted to calm tensions and declared at the weekend that it could be released if Iran offered assurances the cargo would not be going to Syria.

Iran has continued to deny the tanker was destined for Syria.

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, this week said: “We announced from the very beginning this ship was not going to Syria.

“It was going to a place in the Mediterranean other than Syria. We made it clear.”

The UK’s Middle East minister, Andrew Murrison, this week told politicians that decisions about the tanker were a matter for Mr Picardo.

But as he held talks on Thursday with the two men vying to become the UK’s next prime minister, Mr Hunt and Boris Johnson, it was clear to onlookers where the true power lay.

The prime minister and chief minister discussed the latest developments in the Gibraltarian legal case on the detained oil tanker Grace I,” a representative for Mrs May said on Thursday.

“The prime minister stressed the importance of Gibraltar’s independent legal process being followed and paid tribute to their efforts to implement EU Syria sanctions.”

The statement came after Tehran claimed another tanker, the Riah, was towed into Iranian waters for repairs, without clarifying what happened to the vessel, or why its tracking device was deactivated.

It came amid rising tensions between Tehran and world powers over Iran’s unravelling nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015.

The US has sent thousands of troops to the region, as well as nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets.

On Thursday, Washington announced a further 500 troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week Mr Zarif said: “We see the presence of the US as conducive to greater instability.”

The UK Foreign Office has said it is monitoring the security situation in the Gulf and said it is committed to maintaining freedom of navigation, in accordance with international law.

It said that the UK was monitoring reports that IRGC forces captured a foreign tanker.

Oil tankers have been attacked in the region in recent months, while Iran also shot down a US military surveillance drone.

For the people of Gibraltar, the rusty tanker will continue to serve as the main talking point for some time to come.

Updated: July 19, 2019 02:47 AM

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