A super tanker believed to be breaching European Union sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to war-ravaged Syria has been detained in Gibraltar.
In a statement, authorities on the British overseas territory at the tip of Spain said that the port and law enforcement agencies, assisted by the Royal Marines, boarded the Grace 1 early Thursday.
It added that the vessel was believed to be headed to the Baniyas Refinery in Syria, which is a government-owned facility under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad and subject to the EU’s Syrian Sanctions Regime.
The EU, and others, has imposed sanctions on Assad’s regime over its continued crackdown against civilians. They currently target 270 people and 70 entities.
The Gibraltar authorities didn’t confirm the origin of the ship’s cargo, but Lloyd’s List, a publication specializing in maritime affairs, reported this week that the Panama-flagged large carrier was laden with Iranian oil. Experts were said to have concluded that it carried oil from Iran because the tanker was not sending geographic information while in Iranian waters. According to a United Nations list, the ship is owned by the Singapore-based Grace Tankers Ltd.
According to the data firm Refinitv, the vessel likely carried just over 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil. Tracking data showed that the tanker made a slow trip around the southern tip of Africa before reaching the Mediterranean.
The tanker’s detention comes at a particularly sensitive time as tensions between the U.S. and Iran grow over the unraveling of a 2015 nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump withdrew from last year. Trump has also slapped sanctions onto Iran and recently approved the passage of a carrier group, bombers and fighter jets to the Persian Gulf.
In recent days Iran has broken through the limit the deal put on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and plans on Sunday to boost its enrichment. Meanwhile, oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz have been targeted in mysterious attacks as Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen launch bomb-laden drones into Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. has rushed thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and F-22 fighters to the region, raising fears of a miscalculation sparking a wider conflict. Last month Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, further stoking those fears.
Iran’s intelligence minister said Thursday that any negotiations with the United States would have to be approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and would require the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Khamenei has until now ruled out talks with the United States, saying it cannot be trusted.
On Thursday, the official IRNA news agency quoted Information Minister Mahmoud Alavi as saying “if the supreme leader permits, negotiations between Iran and the United States will be held.” He added, however, that Tehran would not negotiate under pressure.
There was no immediate reaction from Syria to the tanker’s detention. Syria has suffered severe fuel shortages as a result of the civil war and Western sanctions that have crippled the country’s oil industry, once the source of 20% of government revenues.
Iran, which has provided vital military support to Assad, extended a $3-billion credit line for oil supplies beginning in 2013 but the Iranian aid dwindled as Washington restored tough sanctions. In November the U.S. Treasury Department added a network of Russian and Iranian companies to its blacklist for shipping oil to Syria and warned of “significant risks” for those violating the sanctions.
Fabian Picardo, chief minister of Gibraltar, which has in the past been a transit port for energy shipments without known buyers, said he has informed the EU about developments.
In a statement, the British government welcomed the “firm action” by authorities in Gibraltar.