- - Wednesday, August 21, 2019


Six weeks ago, Britain sent 30 Royal Marines from 42 Commando to board and impound the Iranian Grace 1 oil tanker, which then changed its name to the Adrian Darya 1 before being released, but that is not the only mystery surrounding this operation. 

The Gibraltar authorities had sent a request to Britain to help them enforce the EU’s embargo on Syria as it suspected the tanker was intending to supply the Assad regime with over two million barrels of crude oil.

The ship was seized on July 4, just one day after the British territory passed “Sanctions Regulations 2019” which gave its chief minister, Fabian Picardo, powers for the “automatic recognition and enforcement of UN, EU and UK sanctions.”

The close timing between enactment and enforcement suggests they knew the tanker was heading their way. But before proceeding, Britain must have considered the consequences of such an act, especially as it involved Iran. 

The last time Britain tried to act internationally without American consent was during the Suez crisis, back in 1956, and that Anglo-French initiative was stopped in its tank tracks by President Eisenhower.

However, since the creation of the EU, Europe has begun to form its own defense force and foreign policy, independent of American influence. This has put Britain in a difficult situation and a huge strain on the “special relationship,” as well as the NATO alliance.

Not that Theresa May seemed too concerned as she was keen to work with Europe, even if that meant defying American policy. 

Alongside the EU, she kept the U.K. in the Iran nuclear deal after President Trump pulled the United States out last year. Although her diplomatic efforts to keep Iran on-board didn’t stop her from dropping the Royal Marines on-board one of its tankers. 

Iran then seized the UK-flagged Stena Impero tanker on July 19 for alleged “nautical violations.” Shockingly, there was no naval patrol near enough to protect it.

Over the past 30 years, successive British governments have stripped the Royal Navy of most of its ships and it can no longer operate as an effective maritime force without some outside help, so it is baffling how Mrs. May thought the U.K. could still police the oceans with impunity.

It was rumored, but denied by her spokesperson, that Mrs. May’s government turned down initial offers of help from America and this had allowed the Iranians to take the Stena Impero. Her Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had been a keen advocate of building an EU maritime force. 

Protection from the U.S. Navy is now in place in the Strait of Hormuz. But Britain is still supporting the nuclear deal, even after Iran has admitted stockpiling low-enriched uranium beyond agreed limits.

To America’s shock the Iranian tanker was allowed to leave Gibraltar after Iran sent written assurances that the oil would not go to Syria. Britain’s territory also argued that U.S. sanctions did not apply in the EU and rejected a last-minute appeal by U.S. authorities.

President Trump has strongly criticized the outcome of the British operation. The United States claims the ship had violated its sanctions on Iranian oil exports, was being used for money laundering, and is connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

There are even some doubts now that Syria was the sole destination for the oil. The BBC reports that it could just be a safe haven for the tanker to offload oil into smaller ships for delivery across the Mediterranean, including southern Europe. 

Days before the tanker’s sailing, a warrant was issued by a U.S. federal court in Washington calling for it to be seized. Meanwhile, the U.K.-flaggedStena Impero and its crew are still being held by Iran. Is there a link there?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened, “anyone who allows this ship to dock is at risk of receiving sanctions from the United States.” Already the Iranian tanker has been refused help by Greece.

Mr. Johnson will have to decide whether Britain’s foreign policy should be aligned with the United States or the EU. The early signs are that he is looking to keep things the way they are for now after confirming the U.K. will not participate in sanctions against the Middle East nation.  

But that luxury of opting between two differing policy objectives may not remain for long. After Brexit, Britain will desperately need a good trade deal with America and it still needs the U.S. Navy to look after British and other shipping in the Gulf and beyond.

Unless it is changed, Gibraltar’s “Sanctions Regulations 2019” gives it the automatic recognition and enforcement of U.N., EU and U.K. sanctions, but not American. So, will Britain still play the role of the EU’s maritime enforcer, if Gibraltar sends it another request?

And will America still be willing to bail it out?

• Andrew Davies is a U.K.-based video producer and scriptwriter.

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