Iranian oil tanker on course for new escalation with United States
ISTANBUL - An Iranian tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil was sailing into a possible political storm, as the United States threatened “action” against the vessel.
The Adrian Darya was on course towards the Eastern Mediterranean after being released by British authorities in Gibraltar following a stand-off that lasted more than a month. The ship, formerly known as Grace I and flying a Panamanian flag, was renamed and supplied with a new crew and an Iranian flag before it left Gibraltar. The destination of the tanker and its cargo, worth tens of millions of dollars, remained a mystery.
Tensions between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear programme and US sanctions have raised the spectre of a new war in the Middle East. Mediation efforts by European powers cooled the confrontation somewhat but the row surrounding the oil tanker could reignite it. Iran recently unveiled a new domestically developed air defence system.
Ship-tracking systems indicated the Adrian Darya I was on course for Kalamata in Greece but the Greek government, under pressure from the United States, said the vessel was too big to dock in Greece.
Athens is anxious not to endanger its strategic ties with the United States, to which it looks for support against neighbouring Turkey’s oil and gas prospecting ventures off Greece’s Aegean Sea islands and Cyprus, or with Israel.
Following a failed attempt by Washington to block the ship’s departure from Gibraltar, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned governments in the region against hosting the Adrian Darya I. He said Washington was determined to act if it turned out that the ship was heading for Syria, an Iranian ally under international sanctions.
British marines seized the tanker in Gibraltar in early July following intelligence — possibly coming from the United States — that the vessel was travelling to Syria. Iran has denied this but has not said what the destination is.
“If that ship again heads to Syria, we will take every action we can consistent with those sanctions to prevent that,” Pompeo said.
Iran said any attempt by the United States to seize the ship could lead to a dangerous escalation.
Asked whether the United States could renew its seizure request after the tanker sailed from Gibraltar, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “Such an action and even the talk of it… would endanger shipping safety in open seas.”
“Iran has issued the necessary warnings through official channels, especially the Swiss Embassy, to American officials not to commit such an error because it would have heavy consequences,” Mousavi said in remarks on state television. Switzerland represents US interests in Iran because Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations.
The exchange between Iran and the United States over the tanker came shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a new mediation effort between Iran and the United States.
Macron has been at the forefront of EU efforts to find common ground that would leave the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran in place and lighten the burden of crippling US sanctions against Tehran. Since the United States abandoned the nuclear deal last year, Iran has responded with a series of moves, including retreating from some of its commitments to limit its nuclear activity.
Speaking before hosting a G7 summit, Macron said he wanted the meeting to yield a clearer strategy on how to avoid a further deterioration in the region.
“In the coming hours before the G7, I will have meetings with the Iranians and propose ideas,” Macron said. Leaders from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and the European Union were to attend the Group of Seven meetings in the south-western French resort of Biarritz.
Macron said he had worked out “proposals either for a softening of sanctions or a compensation mechanism to enable the Iranian people to live better.” In return, he would expect Iran to comply fully with the nuclear deal and for Tehran to engage in new negotiations that would include its ballistic missile programme “We shall see what the response from the Iranians is in the hours ahead and we shall see how the Americans are ready to move forward,” Macron said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was on a tour through Scandinavian countries and then was to meet with Macron, said Iran would not start a war in the Gulf but would defend itself.
“Will there be a war in the… Gulf? I can tell you that we will not start the war… but we will defend ourselves,” Zarif said at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.