Eyes on Iran as Britain seizes oil tanker over Syria sanctions

popular

Oil supertanker Grace 1 on suspicion of being carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria is seen near Gibraltar, Spain in this picture obtained from social media, July 4, 2019.

Stephen McHugh via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) - British Royal Marines seized an oil tanker in Gibraltar on Thursday accused of bringing oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, a dramatic step that could escalate confrontation between the West and Iran.

The Grace 1 tanker was impounded in the British territory at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea after sailing around Africa from Middle East.


Shipping data reviewed by Reuters suggests it had been loaded with Iranian oil off the coast of Iran, although its documents say the oil is from neighboring Iraq.

The authorities in Gibraltar made no reference to the source of the oil when they seized it under the authority of European sanctions against Syria that have been in place for years.

But the likelihood that the cargo was Iranian drew a link between the incident and a new U.S. effort to halt all global sales of Iranian crude, which Tehran has described as an illegal "economic war" against it.

European countries have tried stay neutral in that confrontation, which saw the United States 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.

In a statement, the Gibraltar government said it had reasonable grounds to believe that the Grace 1 was carrying its shipment of 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."

"SO PUBLIC, SO AGGRESSIVE"

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed Gibraltar's move, though the incident could also signal some tensions within Europe.

Spain, which challenges British ownership of Gibraltar, said the action was prompted by a U.S. request to Britain and appeared to have taken place in Spanish waters. Britain's Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment.

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

"This is the first time that the EU has done something so public and so aggressive. I imagine it was also coordinated in some manner with the U.S. given that NATO member forces have been involved," said Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who advises firms on sanctions.

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

Iran has long been supplying its allies in Syria with oil despite such sanctions. What is new now is U.S. sanctions on Iran itself. They were imposed last year when President Donald Trump pulled out of an agreement that guaranteed Tehran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

Those sanctions have been tightened sharply since May, effectively forcing Iran off of mainstream crude markets, making it desperate for alternative ways to sell oil and more reliant on its tanker fleet to store supplies it cannot sell.

The U.S.-Iranian confrontation has escalated in recent weeks, taking on a military dimension after Washington accused Tehran of attacking tankers in the Gulf and Iran shot down a U.S. drone. Trump ordered air strikes but called them off at the last minute, later saying too many people would have died.

European countries opposed Trump's decision to exit the nuclear deal last year, and they have promised to help Iran find alternative ways to export. But they have so far failed to offer ways to ease the impact of U.S. sanctions in practice.

Iran has said it wants to keep the nuclear deal alive but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives promised economic benefits. This week it announced it had accumulated more low-enriched uranium than the deal allows, and it says it will refine uranium to a greater purity than permitted from July 7.

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

Earlier this year, Reuters revealed that the Grace 1 supertanker was one of four tankers involved in shipping Iranian fuel oil to Singapore and China, in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Ship mapping records from data firm Refinitiv show that in the latest case the Grace 1 sailed to the Mediterranean around the southern tip of Africa, instead of via Egypt's Suez Canal.

The 300,000-tonne, Panamanian-flagged tanker is registered as being managed by Singapore-based IShips Management Pte Ltd. Reuters was unable to establish contact with them for comment.

It was documented as loading fuel oil in the Iraqi port of Basra in December, though Basra did not list it as being in port and its tracking system was switched off. The tanker then reappeared on tracking maps near Iran's port of Bandar Assalyeh, fully loaded.

Homayoun Falakshahi, Senior Analyst at London-based energy data firm Kpler told Reuters the ship had loaded Iranian crude in mid-April from Iran's export port of Kharg Island.

A maritime intelligence source said the ship may have made the journey around Africa to avoid the Suez Canal, where such a large super-tanker would have had to unload its oil and refill after passing through, exposing its cargo to potential seizure.

(Reporting by Kate Holton and Jonathan Saul in London; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Tom Perry in Beirut and Roslan Khasawneh in Singapore; writing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff; editing by Jon Boyle)

Editor's Note: This article by Hope Hodge Seck originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

In the wake of a heartwarming viral video that was featured everywhere from Good Morning America to the Daily Mail comes a disheartening revelation: The 84-year-old self-described Army nurse cranking out push-ups in her crisp Vietnam-era uniform might not be who she said she was.

Maggie DeSanti, allegedly a retired Army lieutenant colonel who rappeled out of helicopters in Vietnam, was captured in a video challenging a TSA agent to a push-up competition ahead of a flight to Washington, D.C., with the Arizona chapter of the organization Honor Flight on Oct. 16. The video soon was everywhere, and many who shared it, including Honor Flight, hailed DeSanti's toughness and spirit.

Read More Show Less

The summer before sixth grade, Cindy Dawson went to an air show with her father and was enamored by the flight maneuvers the pilots performed.

"I just thought that would be the coolest thing that anybody could ever do," she said, especially having already heard stories about her grandfather flying bombers during World War II with the Army Air Corps.

So by the first day of school, she had already decided what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Read More Show Less
(ABC News)

Peach schnapps, sex on the beach, and piña colada may be familiar drinks to anyone who's spent an afternoon (or a whole day) getting plastered on an ocean-side boardwalk, but they're also specialty desserts at Ray's Boozy Cupcakes, Etc, a bakery in Voorhees, New Jersey run by a 93-year-old World War II veteran named Ray Boutwell.

Read More Show Less
Instagram/US Coast Guard

A former senior Coast Guard official has been accused of shoplifting from a Philadelphia sex shop.

Rear Adm. Francis "Stash" Pelkowski (Ret.) was accused of stealing a tester item from Kink Shoppe on Oct. 8, according to an Instagram post by the store that appeared online two days later. In the post, which included apparent security camera footage of the incident, a man can be seen looking at products on a counter before picking up an item and placing it in his pocket before turning and walking away.

The Instagram post identified the man as Pelkowski, and said it wished him "all the best in his retirement, a sincere thank you for your service, and extreme and utter disappointment in his personal morals."

Read More Show Less

SAN DIEGO —The Marines say changes in the way they train recruits and their notoriously hard-nosed drill instructors have led to fewer incidents of drill instructor misconduct, officials told the Union-Tribune.

Their statement about training followed an Oct. 5 Washington Post report revealing that more than 20 Marines at the San Diego boot camp have been disciplined for misconduct since 2017, including cases of physical attacks and racist and homophobic slurs. The story also was published in the Union-Tribune.

Read More Show Less