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Iranian commander says Tehran should seize a British oil tanker if its vessel not released

UK Royal Marines seized Iranian tanker in Gibraltar for allegedly trying to take oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions
The Grace 1 tanker was impounded in the British territory on the southern tip of Spain after sailing around Africa (Reuters)

Iran should seize a British oil tanker if an Iranian vessel detained off Gibraltar on Thursday is not released immediately, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander has said.

British Royal Marines seized the giant oil tanker for allegedly trying to take oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, a dramatic step that drew Tehran's fury and could escalate its confrontation with the West.

“If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities duty to seize a British oil tanker," said IRGC Major General Mohsen Rezai, who is also secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, a powerful state body.

"Islamic Iran in its 40-year history has never initiated hostilities in any battles but has also never hesitated in responding to bullies," Rezai said on his Twitter account on Friday.

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Iran's foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador in Tehran on Thursday to voice "its very strong objection to the illegal and unacceptable seizure" of its ship, Iranian state TV quoted the ministry's spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying.

The diplomatic move lifted any doubt over Iran's ownership of the vessel, which flies a Panama flag and is listed as managed by a company in Singapore.

The 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.

Panama's Maritime Authority said on Thursday that Grace 1 was no longer listed in Panama's international boat registry as of 29 May.

US national security adviser John Bolton said the British move was "excellent news".

"America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade," Bolton said on Twitter.

'A signal to Syria and Iran'

Shipping data reviewed by the Reuters news agency 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 European Union has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, it had never seized a tanker at sea. Unlike the United States, the EU does not have broad sanctions against Iran.

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"This is the first time that the EU has done something so public and so aggressive," said Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, who advises firms on sanctions.

"I imagine it was also coordinated in some manner with the US given that NATO member forces have been involved.

"This is likely to have been meant as a signal to Syria and Iran - as well as the US - that Europe takes sanctions enforcement seriously and that the EU can also respond to Iranian brinkmanship related to ongoing nuclear negotiations," he said.

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 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, using the abbreviation for ship-to-ship transfers.

"In conclusion, if in fact she is fully laden with fuel oil for STS (ship-to-ship) 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."

Spanish accusation

European countries have so far tried to appear neutral in the escalating confrontation between Tehran and Washington, which saw the US call off air strikes against Iran just minutes before impact last month, and Tehran amass stocks of enriched uranium banned under a 2015 nuclear deal.

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The Gibraltar government said it had reasonable grounds to believe that the Grace 1 was carrying crude oil to the Baniyas refinery in Syria.

"That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria," Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said. 

"With my consent, our port and law enforcement agencies sought the assistance of the Royal Marines in carrying out this operation."

Spain, which challenges British ownership of Gibraltar, said the action was prompted by a US request to Britain and appeared to have taken place in Spanish waters. 

Britain's Foreign Office did not respond to a request from Reuters for comment.

Fuel shortages

Iran has long been supplying its allies in Syria with oil despite sanctions against Syria. 

What is new are US sanctions on Iran itself, imposed last year when US President Donald Trump pulled out of an agreement that had guaranteed Tehran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Those US sanctions have been tightened sharply since May, effectively forcing Iran from mainstream oil markets and making it desperate for alternative customers. 

Iran has grown more reliant on its own tanker fleet to transport whatever oil it can sell and to store a growing stockpile of unsold output.

By restricting Iran's ability to move oil, US sanctions have choked off Tehran's Syrian allies, causing fuel shortages in government-controlled areas, Reuters said.

In May, Syria received its first foreign oil for six months with the arrival of two shipments, one from Iran, a source said at the time.