Following the release on Thursday of its oil super tanker Grace1 by the Gibraltar authorities, despite enormous US pressure not to do so, Iran emerged victorious and even more defiant from a fortnight of a standoff with Britain whose navy had seized the ship at the request of the Americans who claimed the tanker was bound for Syria, forbidden to import oil under US-led sanctions.
Tehran reciprocated two weeks later by seizing a British Tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz and accusing it of “violating international regulations.” The move created a crisis with Britain, fiery exchanges ensued between Tehran and both Washington and London. The newly-elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had little choice but to deal with, and dismantle this untimely challenging row as soon as he took office.
Following president Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 5+1 Nuclear Deal with Iran last year, and the ramifications of that decision on regional and world security and stability, the last thing London and its EU partners needed was another crisis with Tehran and an unnecessary tit-for-tat escalation that could easily develop into a much more serious confrontation.
No sailing back in Grace, US plot
The British territory of Gibraltar’s Supreme Court approved the release of Grace1 despite last-minute desperate efforts by the Trump administration to stop the move to free the Iranian tanker. The move came as the US Justices Department issued a warrant that was unveiled on Friday for the seizure of the vessel, one day after it was released by Gibraltar. The US warrant claims that the supertanker, all the oil on-board and $995.000 were subject to forfeiture. Washington appears to be adamant not to see Grace1 sailing in grace once again, following the humiliating failure of US legal intervention and the futile pressure it applied on Gibraltar’s High Court and authorities to scupper the plan for letting the tanker free.
Tehran has repeatedly denied that the original destination of Grace1 was Syrian ports. Gibraltar claimed it had received assurances from Iran and the owners of the oil on-board the tanker would not be delivered to Syria, which would be in breach of US and European Union sanctions.
The ship was boarded six weeks ago as it passed through Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Two weeks later, Iran seized a British ship in the Gulf, in what was widely regarded as a tit-for-tat operation. The release of the Iranian super tanker followed delicate negotiations in London, between officials from Gibraltar and Iran as tension grew.
Act of piracy, Iran says
Today, Iran issued a belligerent statement disputing Gibraltar’s account of events leading to the release of their vessel, insisting that Tehran had made no commitments whatsoever to secure the tanker’s release. “Iran has made no commitment that the ship would not go to Syria, because from the early hours of the tanker’s detention, we announced that Syria was not its destination and we have upheld the same discourse. It is nobody’s business even if it was Syria,” Iranian Tasnim News Agency quoted the Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
“This was an illegal act of piracy, and the Gibraltar government raised the topic of commitment to cover up for its humiliation. We support Syria in all areas, including oil and energy. What we are doing is legal, and has nothing to do with any third country.”, Mousavi maintained. On his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a Trumpian-style move, opted for Twitter where he denounced the US move as a “piracy attempt”.
US last-ditch move foiled
Sensing a humiliation of its own amid growing indications and intelligence that the Iranian tanker will be freed soon, the Trump administration intervened once again trying to abort the release of the vessel. Without any clear basis for Washington’s legal effort and meddling with the issue, the US Department of Justice had applied to extend its seizure. The court adjourned until later Thursday afternoon, when, much to the dismay and frustrating humiliation of the Americans, the release of the Grace 1 was granted and officially confirmed.
Iran’s ambassador in London, Hamid Nejad confirmed that the US had made a futile last-minute effort to block release of the Iranian oil tanker, but ” all American moves ended in a humiliating defeat, and the vessel will set sail from Gibraltar soon”, Nejad tweeted in Farsi yesterday.
The US State Department reacted by threatening to revoke visas for the Grace 1’s crew, claiming that the Iranian tanker was “assisting” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in evading sanctions. The Trump administration has unilaterally classified IRGC, a striking force within the Iranian army, as a foreign terrorist organization a few months ago.
Iran’s defiant statement today,” We do sell oil to Syria, support it in all fields including oil and energy. We shall continue to do so, selling our oil to anybody we want, and whenever we want” is bound to fall painfully heavy on US officials’ ears, and resonate loudly there, for a pretty long time to come.