This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The United States said it welcomed Britain’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar, labeling it “excellent news,” while Tehran condemned what it called the “illegal interception” of the vessel.
“Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace 1 laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions,” U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton tweeted on July 4.
“America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade,” he wrote.
The government of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, said British Royal Marines had boarded the supertanker, called the Grace 1, on July 4.
The ship was detained 4 kilometers south of Gibraltar in what Britain considers its territorial waters, although Spain — which still claims the territory — says they are Spanish waters.
The vessel is suspected of carrying crude oil to Syria’s Banias refinery, which is subject to European Union sanctions.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said she welcomed the “firm action” by the authorities in Gibraltar.
“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.
The EU has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, but this would be the first time a tanker has been seized at sea.
“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 U.S. given that NATO member forces have been involved,” Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who advises firms on sanctions, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
“This is likely to have been meant as a signal to Syria and Iran — as well as the U.S. — that Europe takes sanctions enforcement seriously and that the EU can also respond to Iranian brinkmanship related to ongoing nuclear negotiations,” he added.
Reuters reported that shipping data it had reviewed suggested the tanker was carrying Iranian oil loaded off the coast of Iran, although official documents contend the oil is from Iraq.
Iran summoned the British ambassador in Tehran over what it called the “illegal seizure” of the tanker.
“After the illegal interception of an Iranian oil tanker in the strait of Gibraltar by the English naval force, that country’s ambassador to Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry,” ministry spokesman Abbas Moussavi said.
In the meeting with the British ambassador, a senior Foreign Ministry official “described the U.K. move as unacceptable,” the ministry said in a statement issued on July 5.
The official “called for the immediate release of the oil tanker, given that it has been seized at the request of the United States, based on the information currently available,” the statement added.
Mohsen Rezaee, secretary of Iran’s influential Expediency Council, said Iran should seize a British vessel if the U.K. doesn’t release the oil tanker.
“If Britain doesn’t return the Iranian tanker, the duty of responsible [Iranian] bodies is to seize a British oil tanker in a retaliatory measure,” Rezaee tweeted on July 5.
The seizure comes at a time of especially high tensions between the West, especially the United States and Iran.
U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2018 withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with world powers and began reimposing sanctions that had been eased in return for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.