Iran has called for the "immediate release" of its oil tanker after British Royal Marines boarded and seized it off Gibraltar a day ago after it took a long 90-day trek around the tip of Africa, presumably to evade sanctions enforcement en route to Syria. Authorities had accused the Grace 1 supertanker of illegal smuggling as it had reportedly been transiting some 2 million barrels of Iranian oil.
Iran's foreign ministry had immediately summoned the UK ambassador over the incident, saying the move was "unacceptable". An official statement of protest called for "the immediate release of the oil tanker, given that it has been seized at the request of the US, based on the information currently available," the statement added.
Via Reuters: A British Navy patrol vessel guards the oil supertanker Grace 1 in Gibraltar territorial waters.
Iran's position is that the EU sanctions on Syria have not been endorsed by the UN, while the US received the news as a positive development in the global crackdown on Iranian oil. "Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions," John Bolton said on Twitter.
But Syria and Iran as well as some Arab commentators have shot back that the some few dozen Royal Marines seizing the tanker by fast-roping in on helicopter amounts to "piracy". Related: Iran’s Best Bet To Avoid U.S. Sanctions
To be expected, Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has threatened to seize a British oil tanker in a tit-for-tat move, and even went so far as to issue a statement saying it was Tehran's "duty" to respond in kind. According to Middle East war correspondent Elijah Magnier, IRGC sources said they could:
"Potentially stop any tanker headed towards the UK and sailing in the Gulf."
According to reports, UK authorities and Gibraltar police are interviewing the Grace-1's 28-member crew to establish its ultimate destination and intent. Most of the crew aboard the Panamanian-flagged ship are said to be Indian, Pakistani, and Ukrainian.
European officials believe it was on its way to the Syrian port of Banyas and its refinery: “That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria,” Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo had said in the wake of the unprecedented seizure, according to Reuters. “With my consent, our port and law enforcement agencies sought the assistance of the Royal Marines in carrying out this operation,” he added.
Both the Grace 1 as well as prior tankers attempting to reach Syria's coast are accused of "ghosting" - which involves tankers switching off their transponders at sensitive transit points.
Critics of the West's renewed devastating fuel sanctions on Syria, which has resulted in miles-long fuel queues outside gas stations - have pointed out that the EU has for years allowed weapons shipments to "rebels" seeking to ouster President Bashar al-Assad, while at the same time starving the populace of fuel.
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The second fact is that if not for the United States and its proxies occupying Syria’s oilfields in addition to sanctions on Syria, Syria wouldn’t have had to import oil.
The third fact is that the United States’ and the European Union’s sanctions on Syria are illegal as they were not endorsed by the United Nations. The United Sates and the EU have for years been supplying weapons to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad while imposing devastating sanctions on Syria including starving the populace of fuel.
The fourth fact is that the British action which is claimed to be based on EU sanctions against Syria could be a crude attempt by Britain to exacerbate relations between the EU and Iran at a time when Britain is leaving the EU and Iran is blaming the EU for not doing enough to help it overcome Us sanctions.
In view of the above, Iran is within its international rights to threaten to seize a British oil tanker in a tit-for-tat move and even threaten British shipping in the Gulf.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London