Iran has condemned the “illegal” seizure of an oil tanker by the United Kingdom in Gibraltar and demanded its immediate release.
A senior Iranian foreign ministry official “described the UK move as unacceptable” in a meeting with the British ambassador, who had been summoned to hear a formal protest, the ministry said in a statement on Friday.
He “called for the immediate release of the oil tanker, given that it has been seized at the request of the US, based on the information currently available,” the statement added.
Mohsen Rezai, a senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, also said in a Twitter post that if the vessel was not released immediately, it was Tehran’s “duty” to act alike and seize a British oil tanker.
British Royal Marines, police and customs agents on Thursday stopped and seized the Grace 1 vessel on suspicion it carried Iranian crude oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On Friday, the tanker’s crew were being interviewed as witnesses in an effort to establish the nature of the cargo and its ultimate destination, a spokesman for the British territory said.
The spokesman said the 28-member crew, who have remained on board the supertanker, were mainly Indians with some Pakistanis and Ukrainians.
Later on Friday, Gibraltar said it had obtained an order extending the detention of the tanker by 14 days because there were grounds to believe it was breaking sanctions by taking oil to Syria.
“The Supreme Court has issued today’s order on the basis that there are reasonable grounds to consider that the detention of the Grace 1 is required for the purposes of compliance with the EU Regulation 36/2012 on sanctions on Syria,” the government of the British overseas territory on the southern tip of Spain said in a statement.
John Bolton, White House national security adviser, applauded the interception of the supertanker.
“Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions,” Bolton said on Twitter.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said Iran did not think it violated international sanctions.
“They don’t recognise the EU sanctions on the Syrian government as legitimate because they have not been endorsed by the United Nations,” she said.
“They say that this act by the British government on behalf of Americans is tantamount to piracy,” Jabbari added.
While Europe has banned oil shipments to Syria since 2011, it had never seized a tanker at sea. Unlike the United States, Europe does not have broad sanctions against Iran.
“This is the first time that the EU has done something so public and so aggressive. I imagine it was also coordinated in some manner with the US given that NATO member forces have been involved,” said Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who advises firms on sanctions.
“This is likely to have been meant as a signal to Syria and Iran – as well as the US – that Europe takes sanctions enforcement seriously and that the EU can also respond to Iranian brinkmanship related to ongoing nuclear negotiations.”