An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander threatened to seize a British ship in retaliation for the capture of an Iranian super tanker by Royal Marines in Gibraltar.
“If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities’ duty to seize a British oil tanker,” Mohsen Rezai said on Twitter.
The Gibraltar government said the crew on board Grace 1 were being interviewed as witnesses, not criminal suspects, in an effort to establish the nature of the cargo and its ultimate destination.
US President Donald Trump, while not specifically mentioning the super tanker incident, repeated a warning to Tehran: “We’ll see what happens with Iran. Iran has to be very, very careful,” he told reporters at the White House.
British Royal Marines boarded the ship off the British territory last Thursday and seized it over accusations of breaking sanctions by taking oil to Syria. A helicopter was landed on the moving vessel in pitch darkness.
The move escalates confrontation between Iran and the West just weeks after the United States called off air strikes on Iran minutes before impact and draws Washington’s close ally into a crisis in which European powers wanted to appear neutral.
A US State Department spokeswoman said, “We welcome international partners’ resolve in upholding and enforcing sanctions.”
Tehran summoned the British ambassador to voice “its strong objection to the illegal and unacceptable seizure” of its ship, a move that eliminated doubt about the ownership of the vessel.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the crude oil cargo was from Iran. The ship’s paperwork said the oil was from neighbouring Iraq, but tracking data reviewed by Reuters suggested it loaded at an Iranian port.
European countries walked a thin line since last year when the United States ignored pleas and exited a pact between Iran and world powers giving Tehran access to global trade in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Over the past two months, Washington tightened sanctions against Tehran with the aim of halting oil exports. The moves have largely driven Iran from mainstream markets and forced it to find unconventional ways to sell crude.
The confrontation took on a military dimension in recent weeks, with Washington accusing Iran of attacking ships in the Gulf and Iran shooting down a US drone. Trump ordered then cancelled retaliatory strikes.
With nuclear diplomacy at the heart of the crisis, Iran announced it amassed more fissile material than allowed under its deal and would purify uranium to a higher degree than permitted from July 7.
The Grace 1 was impounded in the British territory on the southern tip of Spain after sailing the long way around Africa from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, a route demonstrating the unusual steps Iran appears to be taking to try to keep some exports flowing.
“WARNING THE IRANIANS”
The Gibraltar spokesman said the 28-member crew, still on board the super tanker, were mainly Indians with some Pakistanis and Ukrainians. Police and customs officials remained on board the vessel to carry out investigations, but the Royal Marines were no longer present.
While the European Union has not followed the United States in imposing broad sanctions against Iran, it had measures in place since 2011 prohibiting sales of oil to Syria.
Gibraltar said it had an order extending the detention of the super tanker by 14 days because there were grounds to believe it was breaking sanctions by taking crude oil to Syria.
Shipping experts say it may have been avoiding the more direct route through the Suez Canal, where a big tanker would typically be required to unload part of its cargo into a pipeline to cross, potentially exposing it to seizure.
Olivier Dorgans, an economic sanctions expert at Hughes Hubbard & Reed law firm in Paris, said the British move appeared to send a warning to the Iranians that if they pushed on with their nuclear breaches, European countries would act:
“This was done for political effect. The British are warning the Iranians.”