Iran summons UK ambassador in tanker seizure row

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Iran, has summoned the British ambassador in Tehran to complain about what it says is the illegal seizure of an Iranian oil tanker.

British Royal Marines helped the authorities in Gibraltar seize the ship because of evidence it was heading to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

Spain’s acting foreign minister said the seizure of the ship – Grace 1 – was at the US’s request.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said detaining its tanker was illegal.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus said a significant international row could be developing.

Gibraltar port and law enforcement agencies detained the super tanker and its cargo on Thursday morning with the help of the marines.

The BBC has been told a team of about 30 marines, from 42 Commando, were flown from the UK to Gibraltar to help, at the request of the Gibraltar government.

A defence source described it as a “relatively benign operation” without major incident.

However, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was later quoted on Iranian state TV as saying the UK’s ambassador in Tehran, Robert Macaire, had been summoned over the “illegal seizure” of the tanker.

t’s clear that this seizure was to enforce EU sanctions against Syria, not US sanctions against Iran.

But it looks as if both the US and the UK had been tracking the movements of Grace 1 throughout its curious voyage from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Curious because such a valuable cargo of oil would normally be taken via the Suez Canal, even if that means using more than one vessel and transhipping the oil because not all super-tankers can squeeze through. It’s a massive shortcut.

Instead, in this instance the master took his vessel and controversial cargo the very long route around the southern tip of Africa – the Cape. Was that a smokescreen to conceal its apparent destination – the Mediterranean coast of Syria?

The Americans were acutely interested because they are determined to prevent Iran profiting from oil sales which breach US sanctions.

Britain, by contrast, would not have acted to enforce US measures.

But when the super-tanker, all 330 metres of it, entered EU waters, specifically Gibraltar waters, the British authorities judged they had no choice but to enforce EU sanctions against Syria which the UK pushed for and strongly support.

Brussels was not involved in the seizure decision. It is not a matter for EU institutions to enforce customs law. That is a responsibility of member states.

However, the Iranian charge that Britain was doing the Americans bidding may be hard to shake off.

That matters because it fuels an Iranian conviction that Europe only pays lip service to its continuing commitment to the hard-won nuclear deal – the deal which Donald Trump repudiated and does not want to survive.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the swift action by the authorities in Gibraltar and the Royal Marines would deny valuable resources to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “murderous regime”.

Gibraltar said there was reason to believe the ship was carrying Iranian crude oil to the Baniyas Refinery in the Syrian Mediterranean port town of Tartous.

The refinery is a subsidiary of the General Corporation for Refining and Distribution of Petroleum Products, a section of the Syrian ministry of petroleum.

The EU says the facility therefore provides financial support to the Syrian government, which is subject to sanctions because of its repression of civilians since the start of the uprising against President Assad in 2011.

The refinery has been subject to EU sanctions since 2014.

 

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