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British Royal Marines and Gibraltar police have seized a supertanker suspected of carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
Shipbrokers and tanker-tracking data indicate that the oil on board Grace 1, a Panamanian-flagged vessel with a capacity of 2m barrels, is from Iran.
The government of Gibraltar said on Thursday it had “reasonable grounds” to believe the vessel, which was seized to the east of the British overseas territory, was carrying crude oil to the Banyas refinery in Syria.
“We have detained the vessel and its cargo,” chief minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement, making no reference to the source of the oil. “That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria.”
Iranian state TV said that the British ambassador in Tehran had been summoned over the “illegal seizure” of the tanker carrying Iranian oil — confiming the origin of the supply.
According to a person familiar with the operation, the chief minister of Gibraltar requested assistance from the UK’s Ministry of Defence on Tuesday. Thirty Royal Marines were dispatched from Devon to help with the operation.
Shortly before 2am local time the first group of marines boarded the tanker from a Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter. They were followed by the rest of the marines task force, who approached the vessel in fast boats alongside 16 members of the Gibraltar police, who were directing the operation.
EU and US sanctions against Syria have been in place since 2011 after President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, which has since escalated into a prolonged civil war. The sanctions span arms sales, transactions with Syria’s central bank and asset freezes on officials, business people and those accused of developing chemical weapons.
Grace 1 has a history of handling Iranian fuel oil rather than crude, according to TankerTrackers, which monitors vessel movements, with some of this making its way to Syria. While fuel oil is usually used in ships, the cargoes to Syria have been refined into other products or used in power stations.
A person familiar with the operation said the decision to take control of the vessel was based entirely on its suspected final destination of the Banyas refinery in Syria, which is under EU sanctions. The fact its cargo may be of Iranian origin did not influence the decision.
“It would have been the same if the cargo was coming from the UK North Sea,” the person said. “The authorities in Gibraltar were obligated to act.”
Iran, which is closely allied with the Assad regime, is also a target of sanctions by the US, following the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal agreed with a group of world powers. Since restrictions were imposed on big buyers of Iranian oil, such as China, India and Japan, the majority of Tehran’s sales have gone to Syria, which is reliant on Iranian fuel oil.
Syria and Iran’s strategic alliance dates back to the 1980s. Tehran’s credit lines and military support have helped the Assad regime survive Syria’s eight-year civil war. This year, Syria blamed tightening US sanctions on Iranian oil exports for pitching the country into its worst fuel crisis since the conflict began. Iranian oil deliveries to Syria had resumed in early May, a source at Banyas confirmed, easing Syria’s biting energy shortages.
The tanker’s detention has the potential to inflame tensions between Tehran and the EU if the cargo is confirmed to be of Iranian origin.
EU nations including the UK have been working with Iran to try to create a mechanism outside the US financial system to allow Tehran to continue trading under the terms of the nuclear deal. Iran has insisted any mechanism must allow oil sales, rather than just the small-scale pharmaceutical and agricultural trades.
Supertankers are too large to transit the narrow Suez Canal, leading Grace 1 to make the long journey via South Africa and Gibraltar through the Mediterranean Sea.
Shipbrokers said Grace 1 loaded Iranian light-grade crude off Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf on April 7. It then remained in place off Fujairah, on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates. Data showed the cargo on board had changed to fuel oil. It departed the region in mid-May, sailing round the Cape of Good Hope towards Gibraltar. “She’s been sailing very slowly for the last six weeks,” said one shipbroker.
One oil industry source based in Gibraltar said the vessel was suspected of stopping outside the port to take delivery of spare parts after its long voyage.
On Monday, Iran said it had breached the internationally agreed limits on its stockpile of less-enriched uranium. Tehran has argued it is not bound by the terms of the nuclear deal when its oil sales have been largely cut off.