British Royal Marines, police and customs agents in Gibraltar stopped a supertanker accused of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
The Grace 1 vessel was boarded early on Thursday when it slowed down in a designated area used by shipping agencies to ferry goods to ships in the UK territory along Spain’s southern coast.
Iran summoned the British ambassador in Tehran over the “illegal seizure” of the oil tanker in Gibraltar, Iranian state TV quoted foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying.
John Bolton, White House national security adviser, applauded the interception of the supertanker.
“Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions,” Bolton said on Twitter.
The dramatic move could escalate the confrontation between the US and Iran.
While Europe has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, it had never seized a tanker at sea. Unlike the United States, Europe does not have broad sanctions against Iran.
“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 US 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 US – that Europe takes sanctions enforcement seriously and that the EU can also respond to Iranian brinkmanship related to ongoing nuclear negotiations.”
The Gibraltar government said it had reasonable grounds to believe the vessel was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Banyas Refinery in Syria.
“That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria,” Gibraltar’s 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. We have detained the vessel and its cargo,” said Picardo.