UK finds itself in diplomatic maelstrom with Iran and Spain after seizure of Syria-bound oil-tanker

The Independent -| Kim Sengupta: An official complaint by the Spanish government and the threat by an Iranian official to seize British ships is the latest twist in a strange affair, albeit one which has worrying ramifications at a time of rising tension, provoked by the seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar by Royal Marines.

“We are studying the circumstances and looking at how this affects our sovereignty,” declared Josep Borrell, the acting Spanish foreign minister, in Madrid.

The Spanish ministry of foreign affairs, however, had acknowledged earlier that stopping the ship was “in compliance with European Union sanctions” against Syria and the Spanish government had chosen, in the light of this, not to interfere.

So a Guardia Civil vessel stood by and watched as 30 marines from 42 Commando went into action in waters that Madrid claims as its own.

Although there have been charges by some Spanish politicians of British arrogance, the boarding of the tanker was, in fact, done with great reluctance. The constant message from London has been the need to maintain relations with Iran and try and save the nuclear deal Donald Trump is trying to sabotage.

Britain has also sent a minister, Andrew Murrison from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – the only European state to do so since attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and the shooting down of an US drone by Iran ratcheted up the confrontation between the Trump administration and Tehran.

British, French and German officials are also aware that the American economic war on Iran, with the key aim choking off oil sales, the country’s main source of revenue, is having a highly damaging effect.

Exports are down to 200,000 barrels per day, with European estimates that Iran needs to sell between 600,000 to 700,000 barrels to keep the economy afloat.

The Spanish claim that the British took action at the request of the Americans; however, London insists it acted after receiving information from the Gibraltar government.

Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, said: “We had reasonable grounds to believe that the vessel, the Grace 1, was acting in breach of EU sanctions against Syria. In fact, we have reason to believe that the Grace 1 was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Banyas refinery in Syria.”

Data from Lloyd’s List, the specialist shipping website, showed that the tanker had begun its voyage in Iran and gone around Africa, before entering Gibraltarian territorial waters. It had not taken a far quicker route into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.

The distance from Iran to Syria sailing round Africa is about 23,300km, compared with just 6,600km via the Red Sea and Suez. One theory for the longer journey was that the tanker was too heavy to pass through the Suez Canal. That, however, would be the case only if it was fully loaded.

The tanker could still have avoided Gibraltar territorial waters and it remains unclear why this did not happen.

Lloyd’s List reported Grace 1 had “a complex ownership chain” and was controlled by Russian Titan Shipping, a subsidiary of TNC Gulf, a Dubai-based shipping company.

Executives connected with both companies hold Iranian university and technical qualifications, or list their names in Farsi. The crew, from India, Pakistan and Ukraine, are being questioned by authorities in Gibraltar.

Following the boarding of the ship, the Iranians summoned the British ambassador, Rob Macaire, to the ministry of foreign affairs in Tehran.

Despite strong protests about “illegal seizure” from the Iranian side, the meeting, The Independent understands, passed off better than expected.

Since then Mohsen Rezaee, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has threatened that British oil tankers will be targeted for capture in retaliation. That, however, is seen as sabre rattling for internal consumption and it is thought unlikely that any such drastic moves are likely at the moment.

There are more worries about the effect of crowing from the Trump administration.

“Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace 1 laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions,” tweeted John Bolton, US national security adviser and advocate, formerly at least, of regime change in Tehran.

“America and our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran and Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade”.

Britain does not want to go back to being Little Satan to America’s Big Satan on Iran and the aim above all, say officials, is to calm the situation and not make it more incendi