Supertanker carrying Iranian oil seized in Gibraltar on US request

Iran vessel is the first such tanker to head for Europe since late 2018.
Thursday 04/07/2019
A British Royal Navy ship (L) patrols near supertanker Grace 1 suspected of carrying crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions after it was detained off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, 2019. (AFP)
A British Royal Navy ship (L) patrols near supertanker Grace 1 suspected of carrying crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions after it was detained off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, 2019. (AFP)

An Iranian tanker was halted in the early hours of Thursday by police and customs agencies in Gibraltar, a tiny overseas British territory on Spain's southern tip.

They were aided by a detachment of British Royal Marines.

The ship was detained 4km south of Gibraltar in what it considers British waters, although Spain, which lays claim to the territory, says they are Spanish.

It was boarded when it slowed down in a designated area used by shipping agencies to ferry goods to vessels.

"We have reason to believe that the 'Grace 1' was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Banyas Refinery in Syria," Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement.

"That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria.

"We have detained the vessel and its cargo," Picardo said.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters the vessel was detained at the request of the United States.

Tehran on Thursday condemned the "illegal interception" of one of its oil tankers in Gibraltar where authorities said they suspected it was carrying crude to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

The detention of the 330 metre (1,000 feet) Grace 1 vessel comes at a sensitive time in Iran-EU ties as the bloc mulls how to respond to Tehran announcing it will breach the maximum uranium enrichment level it agreed in a 2015 nuclear deal.

In a statement, Britain's foreign office said "we welcome this firm action by the Gibraltarian authorities, acting to enforce the EU Syria Sanctions regime."

European Union sanctions against war-torn Syria have been in force since late 2011.

The 28-member bloc has imposed sanctions on Syrian officials including government ministers over their role in the "violent repression" of civilians.

It has frozen the assets of around 70 entities and introduced an embargo on Syrian oil, investment restrictions and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets within the European Union.

According to specialised shipping trade publication Lloyd's List, which analysed vessel-tracking data, the 1997-built ship is laden with Iranian oil, the first such tanker to head for Europe since late 2018.

It reported that the ship loaded oil off Iran in April and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

The tanker detention comes just days after Iran announced it would exceed the uranium enrichment limit set up as part of the 2015 deal to avoid it building up to the level required for a nuclear warhead.

Iran did this in response to Washington abandoning the nuclear deal last year and hitting Iran's crucial oil exports and financial transactions with biting sanctions.

The Gibraltar authorities didn't confirm the origin of the ship's cargo but Lloyd's List, a publication specialising in maritime affairs, reported this week that the Panama-flagged large carrier was laden with Iranian oil.

According to a UN list, the ship is owned by the Singapore-based Grace Tankers Ltd.

The vessel likely carried just over 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil, the data firm Refinitv said. Tracking data showed that the tanker made a slow trip around the southern tip of Africa before reaching the Mediterranean, it said.

In recent days, Iran has broken through the limit the deal put on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and plans on Sunday to boost its enrichment.

Meanwhile, oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz have been targeted in mysterious attacks as Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen launch bomb-laden drones into Saudi Arabia. The US has rushed thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and F-22 fighters to the region, raising fears of a miscalculation sparking a wider conflict. Last month Iran shot down a US surveillance drone, further stoking those fears.

There was no immediate reaction to the tanker's detention from Syria, which has suffered severe fuel shortages as a result of the civil war and Western sanctions that have crippled the country's oil industry, once the source of 20% of government revenues.

Iran, which has provided vital military support to Assad, extended a $3 billion credit line for oil supplies beginning in 2013 but the Iranian aid dwindled as Washington restored tough sanctions. In November, the US Treasury Department added a network of Russian and Iranian companies to its blacklist for shipping oil to Syria and warned of "significant risks" for those violating the sanctions.

(AP, Reuters)