Iranian oil tanker seized
image by flickr

British Royal Marines and Gibraltarian authorities on Thursday morning held a supertanker carrying Iranian oil to Syria. This transport to Syria violated European Union sanctions against the Syrian regime; Also, this is in breach of US sanctions against Iranian export of oil. The seizure is against the interests of Iranian and Syrian states, for opposite reasons and with little impact.

However, Iran summoned the British ambassador in Tehran to register protest over the “illegal seizure” of Grace 1 in Gibraltar. While Europe has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, it is the first time it seized a tanker at sea, and unlike the United States, EU does not have stricter sanctions against Iran.

“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 Mathew Dresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, who advises firms on sanctions. According to him, it is a signal not only to Syria and Iran but also to the US that Europe takes sanctions enforcement seriously.

Another perspective which is also relevant to this development is the statement of Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, who claimed that the British action was made on the directives from Washington, according to a CNN report. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar justified the seizure by saying that the Baniyas Refinery belongs to an entity that is subject to EU sanctions against Syria.

The EU sanctions against the Syrian regime followed the anti-government protests that erupted, in the Sunni-majority Arab country, in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011 of which the ruthless and unyielding stance of Bashar al-Assad’s regime eventually evoked sanctions from the EU in May 2011.

Grace 1 had reportedly loaded Iranian oil on April 17, and according to the Definitive Eikon data, it sailed a longer route to the mouth of Mediterranean around the southern tip of Africa instead of a shorter route via Egypt’s Suez Canal.

From the outset, the tanker was made to look and move steadily as its tracking system was kept switched off initially. Besides, it was documented as loading oil from Iraq in December, though it was never listed in Iraqi port. The tanker then reappeared on tracking maps near Iran’s port of Bander Assaluyeh, according to TRT news.

Grace 1 had been at the center of controversy lately, as Reuters had reported earlier this year that it was one of the four ships involved in shipping Iranian oil to Singapore and China. Shipping data indicates that it is a 300,00-tonne tanker managed by Singapore based IShips Management Pte Ltd.

The official Iranian response was as expected. It was furious over the matter and summoned the British ambassador in Tehran over the “illegal” seizure of Grace 1. Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, has said the “destructive” seizure of oil tanker by the UK could increase tensions in the Persian Gulf.

The incident comes during the worst of times when both the US and Iran are muscling for war with each other. This incident is undoubtedly provocative and will contribute to the already strained relations between Iran and the West.

However, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar hailed this event and found the opportunity to praise his forces, which intercepted the oil tanker successfully, and that it did not allow to slip through the surveillance. The British Foreign Office also welcomes the move, with Jeremy Hunt, the foreign affair’s secretary tweeting,