'Difficult to see' if Iran breached Syria oil sale agreement, Gibraltar chief minister says

Josie Ensor
Satellite images allegedly show the Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Syria in early September - Satellite image '2019 Maxar Technologies

Gibraltar’s leader attempted to deescalate the crisis with Iran over the fate of an oil tanker on Friday, saying it was “difficult to see” whether Tehran breached an agreement not to sell its oil to Syria.

Iran made assurances to a court in Gibraltar that it would not deliver the seized supertanker’s two million barrels of crude oil to the Syrian regime in order to secure its release.

After it was freed on Aug 18, the renamed Adrian Darya 1 sailed around the eastern Mediterranean for over a week before heading towards the Syrian coast and turning off its transponder on Sept 2.  Iran claims it sold the oil to an unnamed private company.

Maritime trackers say it is likely the Adrian Darya 1's contents were off-loaded to Syria through smaller vessels. Britain and the US have said such a move is in violation of European Union and US sanctions and breaches the agreement.

Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, however, said on Friday that “it is difficult to see whose word you’d take for it”.  

The British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero is still being held by Iran Credit: Morteza Akhoondi/Tasnim News Agency via AP

“You can see from the images that the oil has ended up in Syria but that’s not to say that there’s a breach of the undertaking [by Iran],” Mr Picardo said. “We did not have an undertaking that the oil would not end up in Syria. We had an undertaking from the Iranian government that they would not sell the oil to any EU sanctioned entity,” he said.

British commandos on July 4 seized the vessel, then called the Grace 1, on suspicion that it was en route to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. Officials claim Iran gave as many as five separate undertakings that it would not proceed with its original sales plan.

Iran’s envoy to the UK, who was summoned by the British foreign ministry over the matter, on Wednesday said Adrian Darya 1’s oil cargo was sold at sea to a third party, denying Tehran had broken assurances it gave. He also said the private buyer of the oil “sets the sale destination”. 

"It is now clear that Iran has breached these assurances and that the oil has been transferred to Syria and Assad’s murderous regime,” a Foreign Office statement said. “Iran’s actions represent an unacceptable violation of international norms and the UK will raise the issue at the United Nations later this month.”

The development came amid heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf. EU diplomats warned yesterday that Britain's decision to join a US-led naval mission in the Gulf has delayed European efforts to set up a maritime force to ensure safe shipping in the Strait of Hormuz separate from American patrols.

British-Australian citizen Jolie King and her boyfriend Mark Firkin are currently detained in Iran Credit: Instagram

Britain and France proposed a European-led maritime force in July that was to be independent of the United States. They won support from Denmark, Italy and Spain, who were wary of an American mission for fear of making US-Iranian strains worse.

The proposal was announced after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait, in what was then widely seen as retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar by British marines.

The British-flagged Stena Impero is still being held by Iran, although Tehran has signalled it could release it soon.  Relations between the UK and Iran have worsened in recent days amid the news two dual British-Australian nationals have been arrested in Iran.

Jolie King, a dual citizen, and her Australian boyfriend Mark Firkin, were travelling from western Australia to London through Iran when they were arrested for reportedly flying a drone.

A third detainee, a former Cambridge-educated academic, has not been named.  Miss King is being held in the same ward of Evin prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker charged with espionage.

Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, told the Telegraph: “She has been there for a few weeks. She came in from solitary very scared. As that is a very traumatic experience.  “She’s gradually learning to trust the others. Nazanin told her family that she has a very good sense of humour.”