Tehran summoned the British ambassador over the impounding of an Iranian vessel suspected of ferrying oil to Syria
Iran demanded the immediate release of one of its tankers impounded with the help of British forces in Gibraltar this week, an incident that has angered Tehran and exacerbated tensions between Iran and Western countries.
The British ambassador to Iran was summoned to the country’s foreign ministry Thursday night shortly after British Royal Marines assisted Gibraltar in the detention of an oil tanker that was bound for Syria in suspected violation of European Union sanctions. Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through an eight-year war.
A senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told British Ambassador Robert Macaire that the tanker seizure was “tantamount to maritime piracy,” according to the ministry’s website. The official “stressed that Britain has no right to impose its own unilateral sanctions or those of the European Union in an extraterritorial manner against the other countries.”
A day earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the impounded tanker, named Grace 1, was carrying fuel from Iran, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. He didn’t say where the fuel was headed.
The U.K. Foreign Office didn’t comment on the meeting but in a statement Friday said it welcomed “this firm action by the Gibraltarian authorities, acting to enforce the EU Syria Sanctions regime.”
Gibraltar’s Supreme Court ruled the tanker could be detained for 14 more days, the British territory’s government said Friday.
One British official said the ship was registered to a company in Lebanon. This is the first time the U.K. has seized a ship for violating sanctions against Syria. The Gibraltar police are now involved over deciding what to do with the crew and the ship.
Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, which advises the supreme leader, on Friday tweeted that Iran should seize a British tanker if the Iranian vessel isn’t released immediately.
“The Islamic Revolution has never initiated any battles in its 40-year history but has also never hesitated in responding to bullies,” Mr. Rezaei added on Twitter.
Recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman has raised the risk for oil tankers traveling through waters off Iran’s coast.
Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk , the world’s largest container shipper, on Thursday said it would raise prices for sending containers into the Persian Gulf, following similar moves from other major shipping companies.
In a statement, Maersk said it would charge an extra $42 per 20-foot container for shipments to some ports in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman.
The threat to U.K. ships has historical precedents. In 2007, Iran detained 15 U.K. Royal Navy personnel off the Iran-Iraq coast, alleging they had entered Iranian waters. The sailors were released 12 days later. Iran also in 2004 captured eight British sailors who were training Iraqi forces, releasing them after three days.
The unusual seizure of the Iranian vessel piles pressure on Tehran, which has tried to find ways to evade U.S. sanctions imposed with the aim of slashing the country’s oil exports to zero.
The incident in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, adds to growing acrimony between Iran and the EU, which doesn’t have broad sanctions in place against Iran. Tehran is moving toward a second violation of the 2015 nuclear accord on Sunday when it has said it would surpass limits imposed by that agreement on its uranium enrichment. The U.S. pulled out of the deal last year and then imposed sanctions on the country.
The U.K., which alongside Germany, France, China and Russia, remains a party to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, has worked to keep the pact alive. However the U.K. is caught in a delicate balancing act, defending the nuclear accord while sharing the White House’s concerns about Iran’s growing belligerence in the Middle East.
Tensions between the U.K. and Iran are already high. Britain has joined the U.S. in blaming Iran for attacks on oil tankers in May in the Gulf of Oman and is also campaigning for the release of several Iranian British dual nationals who have been detained in Iran. These include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was jailed in 2016 for spying, an activity she denies.
For its part, Iran has grown increasingly frustrated with European countries, demanding that they stand up to U.S. pressure and provide some relief from American sanctions. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said that based on its available information the tanker had been seized at the request of the U.S.
Gibraltar’s government denied that, saying its decision to board the tanker was “not at all based on extraneous political considerations” and not “taken at the political behest or instruction of any other state or of any third party.”
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton called the tanker seizure “excellent news,” tweeting on Thursday that “America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade.”
A British shipping executive with direct knowledge of the matter said the ship was tracked by American authorities, who informed the British.
The decline in oil sales has strained Iran’s economy. Its budget is based on the assumption that Iran would be able to export 1.5 million barrels a day, already a stark drop from the 2.5 million barrels it exported a day this time last year.
As U.S. sanctions have bitten harder than the Iranian leadership expected, Tehran has taken a more confrontational approach, and in June shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. Washington also accuses Iran of attacking six oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a charge Iran denies.
In the wake of harsh sanctions by the Trump administration, Iran’s oil exports have fallen to around 230,000 barrels a day, mostly to China, according to a former Iran oil official.
A top adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Friday praised China for continuing to purchase Iranian oil.
“China has continued to buy our oil and will do this in the future,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser, said in an interview with Mr. Khamenei’s website.