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Iran says seized tanker was not headed to Syria, accusing UK of 'maritime robbery'

British marines intercepted the ship following claims it was carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions
The Grace I tanker was seized by British forces (Reuters)

Iran said on Sunday that a supertanker seized by British forces last week, sparking off a diplomatic standoff between the two countries, was not headed to Syria as claimed by the UK.

British Royal Marines intercepted the ship following accusations it was carrying oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions, but Iran's Deputy Foreign Minsiter Abbas Araqchi denied the claim in a news conference, accusing Britain of "maritime robbery".

The minister said the giant tanker has a capacity of up to two million barrels of oil and that is why it was travelling through the Strait of Gibraltar rather than the more direct route through the Suez Canal.

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He did not give information on the tanker's final destination.

“Despite what the government of England is claiming, the target and destination of this tanker wasn’t Syria,” Araqchi said.

“The port that they have named in Syria essentially does not have the capacity for such a supertanker. The target was somewhere else.

"It was passing through international waters through the Strait of Gibraltar and there is no law that allows England to stop this tanker.

"In our view the stopping of this ship was maritime robbery and we want this tanker to be freed,” he said.

Britain should be 'scared'

The government of Gibraltar said on Friday that they had received permission from their supreme court to hold the tanker for 14 days.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander threatened on Friday to seize a British ship in retaliation.

An Iranian cleric then doubled-down on Tehran's stance on Saturday morning, saying Britain should be "scared" of Iran's response. 

"We have shown that we will never remain silent against bullying," said cleric Mohammad Ali Mousavi Jazayeri, warning of "an appropriate response" and mentioning Iran's shooting down of a US drone last month.

British Royal Marines seized the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 in Gibraltar

A British official then confirmed on Saturday that one of its own tankers was "safe and well" after a stop in the Gulf that prompted speculation that Iran had followed through on its threat.

The stop was a routine one made during the journey to its destination in Singapore. 

First seizure of tanker

Iran's Grace 1 tanker was impounded in the British territory on the southern tip of Spain after sailing around Africa, the long route from the Middle East to the mouth of the Mediterranean.

Shipping data reviewed by Reuters suggests the tanker was carrying Iranian oil loaded off the coast of Iran, although its documents say the oil is from neighbouring Iraq.

While the EU has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, it had never seized a tanker at sea.

TankerTrackers.com, which keeps track of global oil shipments, suggested that the ship could be carrying fuel oil, rather than crude oil, destined for Europe instead of Syria.

"Based on all the imagery we spent weeks reviewing, we could not see her loading crude oil. She has a history of handling STS (ship-to-ship) transfers of fuel oil. We believe she was due to do the same in Syria's waters. Fuel oil powers vessel engines. It's heavier than crude oil. She is heavy," they said in a tweet on Thursday.

"In conclusion, if in fact she is fully laden with fuel oil for STS transfers off the coast of Syria, then the destination wouldn't be Syria, but most likely Europe. Fuel oil is a refined product and will not contain chemical signatures that can trace it back to Iran."