A joint operation of Gibraltar authorities and British Royal Marines took place on July 4, offshore Gibraltar, leading to the detention of the Iranian Tanker Grace 1. This action came as a response to the suspicions that the ship’s crude oil cargo was heading for Syria’s Baniyas Refinery, an alleged move that would be breaching EU sanctions against Syria. Shortly after that, the British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Impero, was seized by Iranian authorities in the Gulf in what seemed to be a reconciliation act. Iran has officially rejected this claim, stating that there has been no relation at all between the capture of the two ships. However, the tit-for-tat mindset of the double seizure fueled anxiety around a modern “soft version” of another tanker war; the Gulf territory, Iran’s critical role in the standoff and the US direct or indirect involvement have awoken memories of the attacks on commercial shipping during the 1980s, as a part of the Iran-Iraq war, when more than five hundred vessels were destroyed, and hundreds of civilian staff members onboard were killed.
On August 15, the Iranian oil tanker has been released after a court order from the Supreme Court in the British territory of Gibraltar. Gibraltar authorities came to this decision after thorough assessment of the cargo and strict reassurances from the Iranian side that the oil would not be transferred to Syria. It is worth noting that the US has legally challenged the court decision, advising for extending the seizure of the vessel, though without result. Nevertheless, the US side was not willing to accept this decision easily, seeking to put further pressure on Tehran amidst the ever-escalating confrontation between the two sides since the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA. Shortly after the release order, the US Department of Justice issued an international warrant against the vessel, on the grounds that there is a connection with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite Iranian military unit which the US designates a terrorist organization. There have also been allegations of illicit economic activities carried out through US financial institutions -utilizing IRGC affiliated shell companies – in order to support shipments from Iran to Syria. After the latest developments, the Panama Maritime Authority has delisted Grace 1 from its ship registry, therefore the vessel has been renamed Adrian Darya 1 and is now sailing under the Iranian flag.
The challenging route back and the role of Athens
US actions have not been limited to the warrant though; officials of the US State Department have made it quite clear that sanctions would be imposed aggressively on states and public or private entities that would facilitate Adrian Darya’s journey. This came to complicate even more the already problematic situation of the vessel’s return route; the initial planning included a stop in the Greek port of Kalamata, according to marine traffic data. Yet, Greek government rushed to clarify that Adrian Darya-1 would not be allowed to use any Greek port facilities. Shipping Minister Yiannis Plakiotakis stated in Greek media that there has been no formal request from the Iranian authorities for the ship to dock in any Greek port, while Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Miltiades Varvitsiotis stressed that there have been US pressures with regards to this matter, and that Greece would not facilitate the route of Adrian Darya to Syria whatsoever. Mr. Varvitsiotis mentioned that it would be impossible for the ship to dock in any Greek port, due to its dimensions, and the in case that the vessel requested to anchor in Greek territorial waters, the Greek authorities would handle the matter accordingly, taking into consideration the tight US-Greek relations and the ensuing perceived mutual interests.
Considering that Greece is traditionally and currently the leader in commercial shipping, it makes great sense for the Greek government to adopt a policy that would promote stability and security around the Gulf region and the Straits of Hormuz. This is what Mr. Varvitsiotis made clear in his statements. However, considering that Gibraltar decided to release the vessel, a decision fully compliant with the EU legal framework, the US stance towards Greece raises questions. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Greece would follow all the appropriate processes towards the Iranian vessel in accordance with the EU legislation and UNCLOS; in this context, any pressure from the US side was unnecessary, to say the least. On the other hand, Greece has constantly proved to be a reliable and trustworthy ally of the US in the Mediterranean, and the only result of the US reaction has been to downgrade the perceived role of Greece and create implications that Greek foreign policy is being dictated from Washington rather than being shaped according to the national interests of the country.
After the Greek response, Adrian Darya 1 has planned a new route, allegedly heading towards the port of Mersin in Turkey. Earlier this week, (Monday 26th August) Ali Rabiei, the spokesman of the Iranian government, announced that the cargo of the ship – 2.1 million barrels of crude oil – was sold. The destination of the vessel is yet to be confirmed, without giving further details. Until now, there has been no clear evidence regarding the next port that Adrian Darya 1 will enter. It should be also noted that Stena Impero is still being withheld by the Iranian authorities, amidst negotiations for its prompt release.
What developments to expect in the US-Iran field
The US’ rigid stance against Iran, in light of the aforementioned events, came as no surprise; top US officials – like John Bolton or Mike Pompeo – and key individuals close to the President – like his son-in-law Jared Kushner – have been putting forward a hawkish agenda against Iran. The European Union, with France as the spearhead of its efforts, has been acting as the mediator between the two sides, in order to achieve a mutually beneficial solution for all involved parties. The surprise appearance of Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in the French resort town of Biarritz while the G7 summit is on-going, and President Trump’s reaction to this, could be an interesting watch.
POTUS repeated that Washington is not seeking a regime change, considering the undesired outcomes of Western interventions that turned out this way in the past twenty years. This statement implies that Trump is not necessarily aligned with the aggressive ambitions of close US middle eastern allies, and the US President could have a much more moderate course of action in mind when it comes to Iran, compared to his national security advisor or lobby groups within the States. Even though Trump is frequently portrayed as an irrational leader who follows a rather unconventional and unpredictable foreign policy, one should consider that the US rapprochement with long-time hostile countries and the abstention of any large-scale military deployment overseas points to a much more strategic mindset.
For instance, the Israeli or Saudi leaders would favor a US military intervention against Tehran, on the grounds of the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. John Bolton’s stance towards Iran has numerous things in common with the hawkish neocon agenda that led to the 2003 Iraq war. But President Trump prefers an agile strategy, basing his foreign policy upon the imposition of sanctions and financial pressure rather than engaging in a costly and time-consuming demonstration of military force. This tactic has been quite effective so far, considering the examples of North Korea and Turkey, and it seems that it’s going in the same direction for Tehran, as well, considering the potential meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The outcome of Trump’s actions in the case of Iran is yet to be seen.