That tanker again – oil for Syria

Summary: the supertanker released from Gibraltar delivers her Iranian oil to Syria. US frustrated, media confused.

The tale of the supertanker full of Iranian oil, the Grace 1, renamed Adrian Darya and reflagged as Iranian (our postings of 15 July and 16 August), may be over but mainstream media reports have been inaccurate alleging that she breached a UK/EU ban on exporting oil to Syria and written assurances given to the UK government, and have misinterpreted its significance.

According to Iran she has now “berthed at Mediterranean shores despite the harasses and unloaded its cargo and its owner will decide about its future.” The British tanker Stena Impero, widely assumed to have been seized by Iran as a tit for tat, is “undergoing the last legal procedures [with the] hope that it will be released in the near future”; seven of her 23 crew members (none of them British) have been released.

On 13 July Jeremy Hunt, then UK Foreign Secretary, told the Iranians Britain would facilitate the release from Gibraltar if Teheran gave guarantees she would not go to Syria, adding that the Iranian origin of the oil was not the British concern. But in the event the Chief Minister of Gibraltar (the UK government confirmed that the decision to detain the ship was taken by the government of Gibraltar) released her after receiving an assurance that “the destination of Grace 1 would not be an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions”, referring in his statement specifically to evidence received earlier that she “was bound for the Baniyas Oil Refinery in Syria”. As explained in our earlier postings the EU and UK have embargoed deals with the Baniyas refinery, but have not embargoed oil exports to Syria.

After her release from Gibraltar on 18 August she made her way slowly through the Mediterranean, changing course a number of times, declaring her destination first to be Kalamata in Greece, then Mersin and then Iskenderun in Turkey, then Lebanon, then silence with her transponder turned off. On 30 August the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “blocked” the Adrian Daria and her Indian captain Akhilesh Kumar under a procedure which targets terrorists and those who support terrorism, with the possibility of sanctions. Mike Pompeo tweeted apparently incorrectly that Iran had guaranteed to the UK that she would not head to Syria, adding that according to reliable information she was headed for the Syrian port of Tartus. The US State Department offered the captain several million dollars to take her somewhere where she could be seized by the US authorities.

By 7 September she was photographed off Tartus, which is about 25 miles south of Baniyas refinery and about the same distance from the Homs refinery. According to a BBC report which appears to ignore the facts as explained above, a UK spokesperson said that if Iran had broken its assurances it would be “a violation of international norms and a morally bankrupt course of action”. On 3 September the new UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asked what conditions Iran gave for the release from Gibraltar, replied in carefully qualified language “We were given clear assurances that the oil and the tanker would not, in breach of sanctions, reach Syria and we expect those undertakings to be complied with.”

This story has understandably held media attention, but media reports have overlooked the background that since May Syria has imported Iranian oil which passes legally and apparently smoothly through the Suez Canal (as we commented earlier, a supertanker like the Adrian Darya would have been obliged to unload some of her cargo to get through the canal, which Iran may have judged would create the possibility of her being blocked).

Once it reaches the Mediterranean the oil can be transferred ship to ship. According to one report Lebanon-based “ghost ships” which turn off their transponders regularly evade US sanctions; for example on 25 July the Iranian-flagged Suezmax tanker Silvia I, which is sanctioned by the US, conducted a ship-to-ship transfer of oil to the Panama-flagged Sandro tanker a little under 20 kilometres off Syria’s coast. A New York Times article “Defying U.S. Sanctions, China and Others Take Oil” mentions in passing that some ships have passed through the Suez Canal and the oil “may have gone to Syria or Turkey, analysts say.”

Tanker captains will have read with interest about the bribe offered to Akhilesh Kumar. A shipping professional told the Hindustan Times “It is definitely risky being on vessels breaking laws. Sometimes people unknowingly find themselves on these. Others take their chances, I suppose.”

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