The day that Trump ignored Spain in mission to stop an Iranian oil tanker

The US partnered with London, not Madrid, to stop a vessel bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions that passed near Gibraltar in disputed territorial waters

Miguel González
The supertanker 'Grace 1', two miles east of Gibraltar.
The supertanker 'Grace 1', two miles east of Gibraltar.JORGE GUERRERO (AFP)

Ten days ago, the Iranian foreign minister summoned the Spanish ambassador in Tehran, Eduardo López Busquets, to complain about the capture of the Grace 1 oil tanker, which was carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian petroleum, on July 4 in the Gibraltar Straits – contested waters off the south of Spain.

The diplomat had to explain to his surprised interlocutors that, while the incident took place in Spanish territorial waters, the United Kingdom claims that they are theirs, given their proximity to the British Overseas Territory that is Gibraltar, an area over which Spain has a long-standing claim. The ambassador went on to say that the British authorities had taken action to stop the oil tanker without counting on the support of Spain, as if they had full sovereignty over the waters.

Why did the Grace 1 put itself in this situation? What need did it have to drop anchor right next to a British military base?

The Grace 1, which flies a Panamanian flag, had been under surveillance by US satellites since April, when it was anchored off the coast of Iran. The supertanker, which is 330 meters long and was full to the brim with crude oil, was too big for the Suez Canal, and so it sailed around the Cape of Good Hope before heading for the Mediterranean. According to the US intelligence services, it was headed for the Syrian oil refinery of Banyas.

Washington advised Madrid of the arrival of the supertanker 48 hours ahead of time, and the Spanish Navy followed its passage through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was expected to cross via international waters, as many Iranian vessels do without being stopped.

Surprisingly, on the night of July 3, it entered into waters that London classes as British Gibraltar Territorial Waters (BGTW), and dropped anchor just two miles off the Gibraltarian coast in order to resupply.

That was the moment that the Gibraltar police, supported by 30 British marines, took advantage of to board the tanker. A Spanish Civil Guard patrol boat headed toward the vessel, but the Royal Navy cut off its path.

The supertanker had been under surveillance by US satellites since April

Why did the Grace 1 put itself in this situation? What need did it have to drop anchor right next to a British military base? The interlocutors from the Spanish embassy in Tehran had no explanation. Intelligence experts believe that a member of the crew must have been working with the assailants or that the captain of the tanker was deceived into approaching Gibraltar.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry filed a complaint to its British opposite number over the incident, but not to the US, despite the fact that London simply acted in accordance with its own vision of the sovereignty of the waters that surround Gibraltar, while Washington, with its attitude, was implicitly recognizing the British jurisdiction of those waters.

The Gibraltarian first minister, Fabian Picardo, hastened to boast about the capture of the Grace 1 on July 4 and stated that the decision to capture the vessel had been a decision made by the Gibraltarian authorities, “without there having been a political request from any government.” No one believes him.

Would Spain have acted as the United Kingdom did if Washington had entrusted it with the operation?

Would Spain have acted as the United Kingdom did if Washington had entrusted it with the operation? The European Union has no embargo on Iranian oil, as the US does, but it does have sanctions against the Syrian regime. “If we had had the information and the opportunity, without a doubt we would have done it, applying the EU embargo,” government sources say. Although this would have caused Spain the problems that the UK is currently suffering, after Iranian ships tried to block the passage of one of its tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

But in order to hold the Panamanian tanker, the Spanish government would have had to take the case to the on-duty judge in nearby La Línea, convince him or her that the final destination of the crude oil was Syria, and obtain the necessary detention order – a process not guaranteed to be successful.

This role instead was taken by the Gibraltar Supreme Court, which authorized the immobilization of the Grace 1 for two weeks and let its four officials – of Indian nationality – out on bail. The fact that the case is being handled by the courts has not stopped the British foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, from offering his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, the release of the tanker if he can guarantee that the crude oil will not end up in Syria.

On the chessboard that is the nervy wargame being played out in the Persian Gulf, with the Iranian nuclear program on the one hand and Washington’s sanctions against Tehran on the other, the Grace 1 is just another pawn.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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