Gibraltar Tanker Seizure, Uranium Enrichment Breach Add New Dimensions to Middle East Tensions

Just when you thought diplomatic efforts relating to Iran couldn’t get more complicated, last Thursday (July 4) British Royal Marines assisted Gibraltar port and enforcement authorities in the seizure of a Panamanian-flagged oil tanker believed to be carrying Iranian crude oil to the Baniyas refinery in Syria. After two weeks of escalating tensions related to Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. sanctions, EU efforts to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and targeted attacks against oil supplies and tankers in the Gulf, the impoundment threatens to reignite discord and catalyze a new round of provocations. Somewhat predictably, in the wake of the impoundment, Iran has both threatened retaliation against the British and moved to exceed the limit on enriched uranium imposed by the nuclear pact. Yesterday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed the uranium breach, further complicating international efforts to de-escalate tension and keep the JCPOA on life support.

Remarkably, Britain’s involvement in the tanker seizure was not motivated by attempts to limit Iran’s oil exports (the United Kingdom continues to support the JCPOA and along with Germany and France had been attempting to provide sanctions relief to encourage Tehran to abide by the accord) but rather carried out in conformance with EU sanctions against Syria. The EU sanctions had targeted Bashar al-Assad’s government and sought to deny the regime both oil supplies and cash to fund and support terrorist activity. The Baniyas Refining company is linked to the Assad regime. That said, the LA Times has reported that Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell indicated that the British action stemmed from a request from the United States (more on that below) although the Gibraltar government has denied such linkage.

But the intrigue doesn’t stop there. While U.S. sanctions are credited with severely restricting Iran’s oil and condensate exports, oil analysts and tanker tracking services have increasingly reported instances of shipments leaving Iran then “disappearing” from radar as the vessels turn off their AIS transponders. Kayrros analytical services have reported that last month, more than half of the 50 previously reported “off the radar” vessels were unable to be tracked, although some eventually turned up as floating storage in places like China. Additional tanker tracking data has documented that the supertanker Grace 1, seized off of Gibraltar, had originally loaded at Iran’s Kharg Island in April and took a more circuitous route around the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean en route to Baniyas. Offshore lightering transfers and commingling multiple crudes have also been used as a means to mask Iranian cargoes. Over the weekend, Iran confirmed the loading but argued the oil cargo was part of a humanitarian aid shipment with fuel for the Syrian people. The officials called the seizure illegal.

And in a final twist, diplomatic sources now speculate that the Gibraltar incident could trigger new tensions between Britain and Spain over the territorial status of Gibraltar itself. Located at the tip of the Iberian peninsula along the southern coast of Spain, Britain has asserted ownership dating back to the early 1700s, pursuant to the Treaty of Utrecht—a claim which Spain disputes and which became entangled in the Brexit negotiations. Borrell, nominated last week to assume the post of foreign policy chief for the European Union has asserted that the ship’s detention took place in Spanish territorial waters. Though largely self-governed, Gibraltar’s foreign policy continues to be managed by the United Kingdom, and Britain maintains a small military base on the peninsula, hence the availability of the Marine detachment. Gibraltar’s Supreme Court has extended the detention period from 3 to 14 days as authorities complete their investigations while Iran has called for the vessel’s immediate release.

The announcements of both retaliatory threats and the confirmation of the enrichment breach further complicate Iran’s efforts to draw the Europeans into playing a greater and presumably more supportive role in securing sanctions relief or reframing the context for new negotiations. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are increasingly being pressured by the United States to take greater actions to isolate the Iranian regime, though they, along with Russia and China, largely blame the United States for escalating tensions. Iran has threatened further actions if the European Union is unable to provide satisfactory sanctions relief within the next 60 days and the EU foreign ministers are set to convene next week to discuss next steps.

Frank Verrastro is a senior vice president and trustee fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Frank A. Verrastro
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program