Linking the Events from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF

On 4 July 2019, the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker, Grace I in the Strait of Gibraltar on the charges that Iran was breaching the European Union’s (EU) sanctions by supplying 2 million barrel of oil to a Syrian government-owned Banyas refinery.1 According to Lloyd’s List, a specialist shipping website, the vessel with Panamanian flag originated from Iran which took the longer route by traversing around Africa instead of the more direct Suez Canal to avoid detection.

A detachment of 30 men from Royal Marines intercepted the vessel off the coast of the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. The Royal Marines commandoes landed on the tanker’s deck from a Wildcat helicopter and it was encircled with speed boats. Panama’s Maritime Authority, after the seizure stated that the vessel, Grace I was delisted from its international boat registry on 29 May 2019 due to its linkage with terror financing.2 The ownership pattern of the vessel also appears to be suspicious. It is controlled by Russia’s Titan Shipping; a subsidiary of UAE based shipping company, TNC Gulf. The executives of both firms are linked to Iran.3 The Captain and the Chief Officer of Grace along with two other crew members, four of them Indians, were arrested between 11 and 13 July 2019 under EU Resolution 36/ 2012.4

British officials suggested that the tanker was seized at the request of local authorities in Gibraltar. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo speaking in the parliament on 12 July 2019, pressed that the decision to take action was completely independent and not based on “extraneous political considerations.”5 Spain’s acting Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, however, contradicted the UK and Gibraltar government’s explanation and suggested that Royal Marines conducted the raid at the request of the US. He also claimed that the incident happened in Spanish waters and his office was studying the circumstances and how it affects Spain’s sovereignty. British Shadow Minister of Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton insisted that the US lobbied to the UK to seize the Iranian ship. According to the US intelligence services, it was tracking Grace I since it was anchored in Iran in April 2019. The US had alerted the Spanish government 48 hours in advance about the passage of the Iranian tanker through the Strait of Gibraltar. 6 Iranian newspaper Press TV reported that the Gibraltar government introduced a new law 36 hours in advance to legally enforce the detention of the tanker.7

From the Iranian perspective, UK’s involvement is seen as an American ploy to target the Islamic Republic. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has noted that the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton failed to convince President Donald Trump to go for war. Pompeo and Bolton, therefore, seek to stir confrontation between Iran and the UK and jeopardize their common understanding on upholding the nuclear deal. 8

The UK, which is one of the key signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), continues to support the deal and denied that the seizure was connected to the US imposed unilateral sanctions, and views its oil trade as legitimate stating that Iran was completely free to conduct trade in oil. From the Iranian perspective, since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018, it has been insisting the European signatories i.e. the UK, France and Germany to step up its efforts to safeguard Iran’s weak economy and ensure that its oil supplies remain in place. However, passivity among the European states has frustrated Iran. The European states’ effort to create and implement an alternative financial channel namely Instrument in support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) has been ineffective, and is likely to be limited to humanitarian aid. It is more or less seen as a symbolic move to portray the European states’ intention to circumvent US’ unilateral sanctions. In this context, the British seizure of the Iranian tanker has further destabilized the fragile understanding over the gruelling sanctions on Iran.

Iran, after the British action, has denied that it was supplying oil to Syria and claimed that the tanker was illegally captured calling it a case of maritime piracy. The Islamic Republic has dismissed the UK’s clarification that it supports Iran’s right to energy trade.9 It sees the British action as evidence of its complicity with the US and questions the UK’s sincerity to preserve the nuclear deal. Subsequently, Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), in response to the UK’s action suggested that Iran should consider seizing British oil tankers operating in the region.10 On 9 July 2019, the UK government upgraded its security threat level to Level 3 indicating an imminent risk of an incident. On 10 July 2019, the UK reported that three IRGC vessels approached a British oil tanker, British Heritage, to divert the ship to Iranian territorial waters. The seize attempts allegedly failed after British warship, HMS Montrose intervened and issued warnings to the detractors. Foreign Minister Zarif and IRGC had denied the allegations suggesting that there were no encounters with foreign vessels during the said period.11 Iranian President Hasan Rouhani questioned the logic behind the seizure and mocked the UK saying that British ships are so scared to manoeuvre in the region that it requires the protection of war ships. He urged the UK to respect freedom of navigation.12

After the failed seize attempt, the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt suggested that there was only a small window to save the JCPOA in which Iran has to limit its enrichment capabilities after it exceeded that in the first week of July 2019, and allow international inspectors to visit its nuclear sites. He also sought assurance from Iran that the vessel would not proceed to Syria.13 Iran continued to deny that the tanker was heading towards Syria and demanded its immediate release. The Islamic Republic, in an act of reciprocity, attempted to portray flexibility over the nuclear issue. On 18 July 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered a deal to the US to ratify the additional protocol and accept permanently enhanced inspections of its nuclear sites in exchange for the permanent lifting of the sanctions. The US, however, sees the offer as disingenuous.14

Eventually, in what appeared to be a tit-for-tat retaliation, on 19 July 2019, IRGC seized a British oil tanker, Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. It alleged that the British ship violated maritime rules after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat and switched off its transponders and ignored the warnings by IRGC. It was therefore navigated to Iranian waters and docked at Bandar Abbas port for investigation. Iran’s actions occurred after the court in Gibraltar decided to extend the detention of the Iranian vessel Grace I until 15 August 2019 denying Iran’s request for immediate release.15 Iran said that the tanker would undergo a legal procedure to determine if it had violated maritime rules.16 The retaliatory tactic has been presented under the garb of legality to cushion against widespread international criticism. Iran has realized that its strategic patience policy with regard to the European states was not successful. Since April 2019 Iran has indulged in calculated escalation and it seeks to maintain an image of strength to deflect external pressures.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to US Central Command in Tempa on 18 June 2019, floated the idea of a naval coalition to protect sea routes in the Persian Gulf region. He stated that the US was ready to do its part; however other states must contribute actively to safeguard their interests.17 In other words, the US would provide command and control ships and surveillance measures and the other states would provide patrol boats and escort commercial ships through the region. Persian Gulf states are likely to support the US initiative, however, involvement of the UK along with France and Germany is complicated as these states see the US as responsible for inflaming tensions in the region by unilaterally withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and indulging in the recent escalation. Moreover, the US has threatened the European states with sanctions in case it helps Iran to evade the oil and trade embargo.

Iran’s decision to enrich uranium by crossing the 3.67 percent cap and exceed the 300 kg limit of enriched uranium could further push the UK and other European states to favour the US’ standpoint.18 Hunt, on 22 July 2019, announced that the UK was working towards forming a European led maritime coalition to counter piracy and ensure the safe passage of crew and cargo in the Persian Gulf region.19 It has received positive feedbacks from France, Italy, Netherlands and Denmark.20 This initiative is likely to compliment the US naval initiative that could intensify the scope of maritime conflict in the Persian Gulf region.

The recent escalation, at the same time, has exposed the UK’s vulnerability in terms of diplomatic isolation, and military and economic capability. Militarily, the defence cuts leave the UK with little space to widen its naval and military presence. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has cited the 19 July incident to push for increased defence spending especially on the Navy.21 According to the UK based Express newspaper report on 25 March 2018, the Ministry of Defence review revealed that only five out of 19 destroyers and frigates are currently operational.22 Moreover, there is a diplomatic struggle in the UK to balance its interests. Continuation of the nuclear deal would serve the UK’s vital interests. However, the state is sceptical about its political future in a post-Brexit scenario. Therefore, its foreign policy interests lie in strengthening its alliance with the US.

The UK has insisted that the seizure of the Iranian tanker and arrest of the crew are premised on illegally supplying oil to Syria which is in contravention of EU sanctions under Resolution 36/ 2012. However, the EU resolution under Article 6 specifies prohibition on import, purchase and transport of crude oil and petroleum products that originate or are exported from Syria. The resolution does not prohibit exporting oil to Syria. Interestingly, the UK has traditionally observed that in case of conflict between territorial and extra-territorial spheres, the territorial principle should prevail. Additionally, the EU sanctions on foreign entities and individuals are applicable only for actions committed on European territory, actions that directly effect the EU and actions that effect EU nationals.23 The EU and the UK have been complaining about the extra-territorial dimension of the US laws. The EU infact updated the Blocking Statute on 7 August 2018 to safeguard European firms’ recovery of damages from persons or entities arising from the US’ extra-territorial sanctions and nullify the effect of any foreign court rulings towards the EU.24 But the EU laws do not apply to third parties, in this case Iran.

Moroever, the UK is likely to remain entangled in a long legal battle if it continues to maintain the siege of the Iranian ship. The UK’s diplomatic complications has further aggrevated after the military action, and the maritime dispute between Spain and the UK over the sovereign control of the Strait of Gibraltar has reappeared. The Spanish government lodged an official complaint regarding the British action after the 4 July incident. 25 At the same time, there is no practical impact on withholding oil to Syria as it could be easily replenished by Russia.26

On 23 July 2019, the Conservative Party has announced that Boris Johnson will be the new leader and the next Prime Minister. He is seen as a populist and reactionary politician who will inherit a difficult foreign policy crisis. The new Prime Minister has a staunch pro-Brexit stance.27 He might want to forge stronger ties with the US and the policy gaps between both states may be narrowed at the cost of vital foreign policy interests vis-a-vis Iran and non-nuclear proliferation and control. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif told Boris Johnson that Iran wants normal relations based on mutual interest.28

The present debate is multi-faceted and Iran’s seizure of the British tanker has complicated European states’ political and diplomatic support for Iran. At the same time, the UK is wary about the cost of diplomatic isolation in the post-Brexit context which has forced the state to narrow the policy gaps with the US especially in the context of Iran. Therefore, there is a link between the UK’s seizure of the Iranian vessel and the US’ unilateral sanctions. Under such tense circumstances, British shipping in the Persian Gulf is likely to remain vulnerable and there should be an attempt by the European states as well as China and Russia to de-escalate the tensions. Representatives of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU will meet in Vienna on 31 July 2019, to examine the issues related to the implementation of all the aspects of the nuclear deal.29 In terms of engagement with Iran, there is a need for flexibility on all sides and talks should occur without critical preconditions and unrealistic expectations to arrive at a fruitful outcome.

References:
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  2. Sabbagh, D. and Wintour, P. “Iran fury as Royal Marines seize tanker suspected of carrying oil to Syria.” The Guardian. July 5, 2019. Accessed on July 19, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/04/royal-marines-gibraltar-tanker-oil-syria-eu-sanctions
  3. Latin American Herald Tribune. “Panama Says It Delisted Oil Tanker Seized by UK off Gibraltar.” Latin American Herald Tribune. July 4, 2019. Accessed July 20, 2019. http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2480686&CategoryId=23558
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