Gulf Crisis Reaching the Mediterranean

July 22, 2019

On July 4, British Royal Marines seized near Gibraltar the supertanker Grace 1 suspected of carrying Iranian oil to Syria. This was the first such detention of a ship under the European sanctions targeting supplies to Syria. The tanker is registered in Panama and owned by a Singapore-based company.

Coming on the Independence Day, the detention more than delighted the hawks in the Trump administration as Simon Tisdall wrote in the Guardian. (*)

Following Grace 1’s detention the Washington Post reported that according to Gibraltar authorities, “… the oil was destined for Syria’s Baniyas refinery on the Mediterranean coast. As a government-owned entity, it was added to the E.U. sanctions list in 2014. Some European diplomats questioned, however, whether the sanctions could be legally applied to third countries and not just E.U. member states.”

Iran immediately called on Britain to release the tanker. But the Gibraltar Supreme Court granted a 30-day extension to the authorities to continue to detain the Grace 1.

On July 19, Iran retaliated. The Revolutionary Guard announced that the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero had been seized in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, there was confusion about other tankers reportedly detained and freed by Iran.

The detention of Grace 1 constitutes a violation of international law because EU sanctions are not UN sanctions countries are obliged to respect under the UN Charter. The EU is perfectly entitled to sanction its own entities dealing with the Damascus but not others. Because, after the botched Western intervention in Libya on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of 2011, Moscow and Beijing did not allow similar resolutions targeting Damascus.

Beyond international law, such escalation of the war of nerves in the Gulf has the potential to disrupt world oil trade.

Upon detention of the British tanker, Foreign Secretary Hunt said his country’s reaction will be considered but robust. “We’re not looking at military options; we’re looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation,” he said later. It appears that London, with Brexit in mind, wishes to remain well-connected to Washington but also avoid giving the impression that it is following the US lead like in Iraq.

It is widely reported that Spanish authorities who had also been following Grace 1 would not have taken the tanker in custody and feel uncomfortable with its detention because of the differences with the UK over Gibraltar.

Germany and France have condemned the detention of commercial vessels in the Gulf in the strongest terms; called on Iran to release the Stena Impero and its crew without delay; and, expressed solidarity with the UK.  Nonetheless, they may have disapproved the detention of Grace 1 in the first place because this has taken the Gulf tensions to a higher level.

The Grace 1 incident shows that EU policy toward Tehran has fallen between two stools: honoring obligations under the Iran nuclear deal and avoiding further strains in transatlantic cooperation.

As things stand now, concurrent release of the two detained tankers under some face-saving formula seems to be the only solution. If that were the case Tehran may also insist on safe conduct for both tankers to their destination.

The Guardian reported on July 18 that Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has offered a deal with the US in which it would formally and permanently accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear program. Mr. Zarif noted that in 2023, under the JCPOA, Iran’s parliament was supposed to ratify the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a voluntary agreement that allows IAEA inspectors extensive access in Iran to ensure the country does not have a covert nuclear weapons program. As part of the JCPOA, Iran already observes the Additional Protocol. Ratification by the parliament would make it a more permanent commitment.

In return, Iran wants the permanent lifting of US sanctions.

Iran’s offer of more intrusive nuclear inspections can be a first step in launching diplomatic dialogue between the two capitals. Some would surely object saying this would only raise Iran’s international status like North Korea. However, they need to remember that Pyongyang is now a de facto nuclear power whereas Iran has chosen a different path. If the implementation of the JCPOA in good faith by Iran can be assured further through such inspections, this would be progress.

The world has more than enough problems in the Middle East and the key to their resolution remains multilateralism. “Effective multilateralism” may be a dream, but even with “minimal multilateralism”, the so-called “international community” and the peoples of the region would be better off than today.









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