Gibraltar police arrested the captain and chief officer yesterday of an Iranian supertanker, the Grace 1, which local authorities seized on July 4 to prevent it from delivering crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Despite the Grace 1 seizure and parallel efforts by the U.S. Treasury to cut off the supply of Iranian oil to Syria, shipments have increased sharply over the past two months – including one this week.
The seizure of the Grace 1 represents the first time that EU authorities have seized a ship for violating sanctions on Syria. The unprecedented action was possible only because the tanker’s route passed through Gibraltar, an overseas British territory. Iranian shipments to Syria typically pass through the Suez Canal rather than sailing around Africa and into the Mediterranean, which triples the length of the voyage.
Iran retaliated for the seizure of the Grace 1 by attempting to seize a British-flagged tanker as it approached the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday. The British tanker had not engaged in illicit activity. It is clear that Tehran sought to intimidate London by using force against a civilian target. However, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose trained its guns on the attackers and drove them away.
Tehran denies that the Grace 1 was set to deliver its two million barrels of oil to Syria, but refuses to disclose any other destination. Meanwhile, satellite imagery from Tanker Trackers showed that another Iranian tanker, the Silvia I, was preparing a delivery for the Syrian port of Baniyas on July 9. A third Iranian tanker, the Masal, which made a delivery to Baniyas in May, was moving toward the southern approaches of the Suez Canal with a new cargo, likely headed to Syria, as well.
While the U.S. and EU imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Syria in the first years of its civil war, enforcement was intermittent. Then, last fall, the Treasury Department exposed two networks responsible for illicit shipments of oil; Treasury also published a list of more than sixty vessels involved in this traffic. These efforts had a disruptive effect. From November 2018 through April 2019, only a single Iranian tanker arrived at Baniyas. Fuel shortages intensified across Syria, forcing the regime to impose tight rations.
In early May, however, Iranian tankers started arriving again. A total of five reached Baniyas in May and June. What all of them had in common was that they sailed from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. In that sense, the Grace 1 was an outlier. When fully laden, it is simply too large to pass through the canal.
While Egypt is a U.S. ally, it does not consider the violation of U.S. sanctions to be grounds for restricting passage through the canal. Nonetheless, the canal authorities, at least in principle, expect all ships to comply with regulations governing safety, flag registration, and other aspects of maritime law. In March, Egyptian authorities prevented one Syria-bound tanker, the Sea Shark, from transiting the canal, possibly because of a problem with its registration.
The White House and State Department should press Cairo to conduct thorough inspections of all Iranian vessels that transit the Suez Canal. Egyptian authorities should turn back those which are not in full compliance with maritime laws and regulations. Cairo should, at minimum, halt Iranian tankers that deliberately turn off the transponders that transmit their location to other ships – a common practice among sanctions-busting vessels seeking to obfuscate their location and provenance.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.