The events surrounding the capture this morning of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar have caused a major international stir as the Middle East nation continues to try to do anything it can to destabilize the region and the world. Though news reports and analyses have been relatively consistent, there are still major questions that need to be answered.
Before we get to those, let’s recap what transpired:
British Royal Marines seized a giant Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar on Thursday for trying to take oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, a dramatic step that drew Tehran’s fury and could escalate its confrontation with the West.
The Grace 1 tanker was impounded in the British territory on the southern tip of Spain after sailing around Africa, the long route from the Middle East to the mouth of the Mediterranean.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to voice “its very strong objection to the illegal and unacceptable seizure” of its ship. The diplomatic gesture lifted any doubt over Iran’s ownership of the vessel, which flies a Panama flag and is listed as managed by a company in Singapore.
This is a sordid tale of triples: three lies, three controversies, and three lingering questions. Let’s quickly run through all of them.
Iran has been a nation embroiled in lies since their 1979 revolution. The regimes are accustomed to using deceit to get their way, though the international community has continued to give them the benefit of the doubt until very recently.
In this one incident, Iran used at least three major lies in an attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions against their export of oil and E.U. sanctions against Syria’s Assad regime receiving oil.
- Ship flagged from Panama – The Iraqis pretended the ship was under the control of Panama as a way of preventing international inspectors from boarding.
- Cargo tagged as Iraqi – Documents on the ship indicated the cargo, which was either crude or fuel oil, belonged to Iraq.
- Tanker company in Singapore “manages” the ship – Registration for the “Grace 1” shows the the tanker is managed by a Singapore-based company.
All three of these lies were debunked by Iran itself when they summoned a British ambassador to discuss the situation. This acknowledgement that it is their ship with their cargo is an admission of guilt, though from Iran’s point of view they did nothing wrong. This is their mentality; even if they were trying to disguise their property, they still own it and feel justified in using subterfuge to break two separate international sanctions.
There is nothing controversial about imposing and enforcing sanctions, though those who support Iran and Syria may protest. Both nations have taken actions that should be condemned by the international community, so I’m not listing the sanctions themselves as being controversial.
But there are three things springing up about the way this was handled the potential for confrontation between nations other than Iran and Syria.
- The U.K. acted without E.U. knowledge – It is the E.U. member states’ responsibility to enforce sanctions, including the one against Syria. But normally, such actions are coordinated through the E.U. itself. The United Kingdom acted independently from the E.U. despite them being the source of the sanctions. This is likely due to hopes of negotiations between the E.U. and Iran who both view this seizure as a roadblock to progress in salvaging the nuclear deal after the United States pulled out last year.
- Spain denies Great Britain controls Gibraltar – A European squabble was aroused by this action as Spain refuses to acknowledge British control over Gibraltar and the strait through which the ship traveled. This could bring up arguments of sovereignty between the two nations.
- All fingers point to U.S. intelligence calling for the operation – While Gibraltar and the U.K. claim full responsibility for the action, they acknowledge it was U.S. intelligence that pointed them to the tanker. This has brought predictable accusations by Iran and others that the Brits were acting as a proxy for the U.S. as increased tensions between the west and Iran have centered on the potential for military conflict.
Conspiracy theorists may believe the choice of running the ship all the way around Africa instead of cutting through the Suez Canal was intentional to spark controversy should the ship be detained. But it’s more likely Iran was simply trying to take the route and use the various lies surrounding the ship as their most likely way of succeeding in breaking two distinct sanctions.
What does all of this mean? We’ll find out soon enough, but three questions will linger until they’re answered.
- What happens now with the tanker and the oil? This is not an insignificant seizure. The tanker likely held two million barrels, enough oil to infuse Iran with much-needed cash and make a dent in Syria’s fuel crisis. Assuming the oil is not going to get to Syria, do they have any other hopes of getting fuel?
- Will Iran step up its attacks on tankers from other nations? Iran has been known to react harshly to anything they perceive as a threat. Since they began their attacks on oil infrastructure in the region in May, it has been assumed their goal is to position themselves as a safe alternative, giving them a better hand to play in negotiations. But all of that assumed they wouldn’t get implicated in the attacks. Now, they may be believe their only course of action is to ramp up attacks and hope they don’t get caught this time.
- Is this a prelude to war? The ultimate goal of Iran is economic stability, but their backup goal is war waged against them. It may be counter-intuitive to think they would want war, but a better way of framing it is the want to be attacked. With hopes of achieving economic stability fading with every action against them, hawks in Iran may decide to stop going to the negotiating table and turn more towards terrorism and attacks to provoke a military response from the United States.
These are, indeed, strange times as the treacherous Islamic nation continues to try to outsmart the rest of the world. But when liars are called out, they often react irrationally. Iran isn’t known for being rational even when they’re not provoking war.
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