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Gibraltar tanker seizure triggers Iran-UK diplomatic row

The Gibraltar government said it had reason to believe the vessel was acting in breach of European Union sanctions against Syria. Lloyd's List has been tracking the vessel, which is believed to have been loaded with Iranian crude

Iran has accused the UK of illegally seizing an oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that British officials said was heading for a refinery in Syria

A DETAINED very large crude carrier said to be carrying sanctioned Iranian crude oil to Syria remains detained and at anchor off Gibraltar, triggering a diplomatic row between the UK and Iran.

A legal battle to keep the 1997-built Grace 1 from sailing is now expected as Iran declared the tanker’s seizure “illegal”. Gibraltar has 72 hours from the arrest to make applications to the Supreme Court to continue its detention.

Royal Marines using helicopters and speed boats intercepted the Panama-flagged tanker in the early hours of July 4 while the vessel was in British and Gibraltar territorial waters and waiting to take on supplies.

Lloyd’s List reported earlier this week the Grace 1 was heading for the British territory, after loading a 2m-barrel cargo in Iranian waters around mid-April, vessel tracking data show. The tanker used the same strategies and tactics previously used by tankers shipping Iranian crude to China and Syria. Its Automatic Identification Signal was turned on and off to hide its location, cargo origin and destination.

Iran’s official news agency said the country's Foreign Ministry had summoned UK ambassador Nicolas Hopton  to protest over what its spokesman Abbas Mousavi said was “the illegal seizure of an Iranian oil tanker”.

The ship sailed around the Cape of Good Hope after loading around mid-April off Iran and spending time at anchor in two different locations in waters off the United Arab Emirates. 

Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said the government had “reasonable grounds” to believe the tanker and its crude cargo had breached European Union sanctions against Syria. 

The crude was heading to the Banyas Refinery in Syria, he said, without expanding on how or why the government held this view or from where the intelligence came. That refinery is the property of an entity subject to EU sanctions against Syria since 2014.

“The information was made available to the Gibraltar government and of course this has to be tested in judicial proceedings if there are any,” Mr Picardo said in an interview on the BBC.

He said the interception was made solely on the breach of European sanctions and information that the cargo was destined for Syria, rather than any breach of unilateral US sanctions.

A team of about 20 marines, from 42 Commando, reportedly flew from the UK to Gibraltar at the request of the Gibraltar government. Gibraltar is a British overseas territory. The marines worked with 16 members of the Gibraltar police. A defence source said it had been a “relatively benign operation” without major incident.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said: “We welcome this firm action by the Gibraltarian authorities, acting to enforce the EU Syria Sanctions regime.”

The incident triggered debate over the lawfulness of the tanker seizure and detention which will be tested in Gibraltar’s Supreme Court in coming days.

Local maritime and admiralty lawyers have been instructed for the Captain of the Port, financial secretary and the attorney general, Lloyd’s List understands, ahead of what is expected to be protracted legal debate.

The acting foreign minister of Spain — which claims the waters as its own and does not recognise British sovereignty — said Britain acted at the behest of the US and the country was assessing the detention’s legal implications.

The US has not shown the same vigilance for Iran-China crude flows, which have been taking place without action. Iranian- and Chinese-owned or controlled ships have been loading cargoes since the May 1 ending of waivers allowing some countries limited imports. About five cargoes have been discharged in Syria.

Lloyd’s List understands that the owner of the very large crude carrier is Russian Titan Shipping, a subsidiary of Dubai-based oil and energy shipping company TNC Gulf, which has clear Iranian links. 

While Grace 1 has a complex ownership chain that is not unusual for many internationally trading vessels, its executives listed on LinkedIn have Iranian university and technical qualifications, or list their names in Farsi, the Iranian language.

The ship’s current class and insurance is unknown according to databases. Lloyd’s Register withdrew class in January, 2019, as did former P&I insurers Swedish Club, at the same time as the vessel arrived to spend a month at the Bandar-e Taheri single buoy mooring area in Iranian waters, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data. 

The ship’s opaque ownership and operating chain is complicated further by company websites linked to the tanker not operating. The European Commission-operated Equasis website lists the shipmanager as Singapore-based Iships Management. However, the website is under construction and its telephone number is not in service. Websites for Russian Titan Shipping and TNC Gulf are also not working. LinkedIn lists Captain Asadpour as the executive managing director, saying he has also been president of the Georgia-based Russian Shipping Lines for 11 years.


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