Iranian official threatens to seize British oil tanker unless ship taken by Royal Marines off Gibraltar released

Former Revolutionary Guards commander says it is ‘duty’ for Iran to take a British ship in response 

Borzou Daragahi,Harry Cockburn
Friday 05 July 2019 11:02 BST
Oil tanker halted off Gibraltar at US request

An Iranian former commander has said the country should seize a British oil tanker unless an Iranian ship detained by the Royal Marines is released.

The country’s former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaee said on Friday on Twitter that Iran’s “duty” was to act alike, and seize a British oil tanker, unless Iran’s ship was released immediately.

British Royal Marines detained an oil tanker in Gibraltar suspected of carrying oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions on Thursday – a dramatic step that could escalate confrontation between the West and Iran.

The Royal Marines abseiled onto the Grace 1 tanker on Thursday and landed a helicopter on the moving vessel in pitch darkness.

Tehran has already summoned the British ambassador to voice “its very strong objection to the illegal and unacceptable seizure” of its ship.

The country has also accused Britain of acting at the bidding of the United States.

But on Friday tensions rose as Mr Razaee wrote: “If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the (Iranian) authorities duty to seize a British oil tanker.”

“Islamic Iran in its 40-year history has never initiated hostilities in any battles but has also never hesitated in responding to bullies,” he added.

One senior Iranian lawmaker, reformist Mostafa Kavakebian, said the seizure “proves once again Britain’s lack of honour in obeying America” and puts the lie to “the Europeans’ empty claim that they’re looking to preserve the nuclear deal.”

Mr Kavakebian heads the Iran-UK parliamentary friendship group.

The 28-person crew on the enormous Iranian tanker are being interviewed as witnesses, not criminal suspects, authorities in Gibraltar said.

The territory’s police and customs officials have remained on board the ship to carry out their investigation, but the Royal Marines are no longer present, Reuters reports.

On Thursday Gibraltar said it had reasonable grounds to believe the Grace 1 was carrying crude oil to the Baniyas refinery in Syria.

The EU imposed sanctions on the country in 2011 after Bashar al-Assad‘s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators spiralled into civil war.

Prime minister Theresa May’s official spokesperson said: “We welcome this firm action to enforce EU sanctions against the Syrian regime and commend the Gibraltarian authorities involved in successfully carrying out this morning’s operation.

“This sends a clear message that violation of the sanctions is unacceptable.”

The Foreign Office also welcomed the “firm action” by the Gibraltarian authorities.

The clash is another of the consequences of unilateral US sanctions on Iran. Unable to sell its oil through global energy companies worried about drawing the ire of Washington, Iran is forced into making clandestine deals beyond the surveillance of US authorities.

The US has been criticised for using its economic might to stretch the limits of international law and norms.

By enforcing EU sanctions against a non-EU member, the UK appears to be using a similar approach. No such steps have been taken by the UK or other EU nations against Russian vessels exporting energy and weapons to Syria.

Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, said on Thursday that the action was undertaken following “a demand from the US to the UK,” even as London tried to depict the move as one requested by Gibraltar.

Additional reporting by agencies

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