FEATURE | Gibraltar tanker seizure causes political furore

Photo: UK MoD
Photo: UK MoDGrace 1 being boarded off Gibraltar

In the early hours of July 4, an armed party of British Royal Marines. embarked in a helicopter, and a number of RHIBs, boarded the VLCC Grace 1, off the British colony of Gibraltar. The Marines encountered no resistance, and rapidly took charge of the vessel, before handing it over to the custody of an armed team of officers of the Royal Gibraltar Police (RGP).

UK’s Ministry of Defence has revealed very little information about the seizure. According to Gibraltarian sources, though, the operation was conducted from the UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary replenishment tanker Tidesurge, using the ship’s RHIBs, and a British Royal Navy Lynx Wildcat helicopter.

The 30,000-tonne Tidesurge features a large aft flight deck, and a hangar, and is equipped with Pacific 24 RHIBs. A Tide-class ship is visible in some media video footage of the aftermath of the incident.

Local reports indicate that back-up for the operation was provided by the RGP patrol vessel Sir Adrian Johns, and fast pursuit craft of HM Customs Gibraltar, and that Grace 1 had conveyed a cargo of two million barrels of light crude oil from Kharg Island in Iran, via a route around the coast of Africa, thereby avoiding the Suez Canal. Its reported intended destination is the Baniyas refinery in Syria.

Tidesurge

A Gibraltar court has granted the RGP a two week extension of detention, while investigations are carried out. A political furore has meanwhile erupted.

Washington sent hearty congratulations to London for the seizure, and it seems probable, on the face of it, that the vessel was being operated in breach of both the EU embargo on oil supplies to Syria, and the US embargo on Iranian oil exports.

The EU does not, though, acquiesce to the latter embargo, and in fact has instituted the “INSTEX” barter trade mechanism, in order to continue to do business with Iranian entities. Sovereignty of the waters within which Grace 1 is detained, furthermore, is contested by Spain and UK. There is, therefore, considerable tension in Brussels over the affair.

Tehran, meanwhile, has declared the seizure to be illegal, and has made a strongly worded threat to seize a British tanker in retaliation for UK’s “piracy”, thereby boosting the already high tension, in and around the Persian Gulf. The government in Tehran summoned the UK Ambassador in order to lodge a protest, and further political developments are awaited.

1997-built Grace 1 is currently owned by Dubai-based Russian Titan Shipping Lines. It flies the Panamanian flag, although the Panamanian authorities reportedly de-registered the ship in late May 2019.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.