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Keeping an Eye on the Iranian Tanker Freed by Gibraltar

4 MINS READAug 16, 2019 | 20:45 GMT
This photo shows the Iranian supertanker Adrian Darya.
(JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)

Gibraltar's Supreme Court ruled that Iranian supertanker Adrian Darya, seized last month on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, must be released.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.

The supertanker Grace 1, which had been impounded in Gibraltar since its seizure in early July by British Marines on suspicion of carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions, has been released from custody. The Iranian-owned vessel, which had sailed under a Panamanian flag, has since been renamed Adrian Darya and reflagged by Iran. On Aug. 16, a day after the Gibraltar Supreme Court ordered its release, reports from the scene indicated that the tanker was preparing to depart. However, it remained anchored off the coast of the British territory at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.

Forecast Update

The U.S. push against the current Iranian government includes sanctions designed to cut off the country's major source of revenue: oil. The United Kingdom's seizure of an Iranian oil tanker ostensibly headed to Syria in violation of EU sanctions on that country threatened to escalate an already tense situation. The ship was ordered freed, but the legal drama over the supertanker Adrian Darya (formerly Grace 1) may not yet be over.

In ordering the release, Gibraltar's high court rebuffed a request by the United States, which is pursuing a pressure campaign against the Islamic republic, to extend the tanker's detention after Iran offered assurances that the Adrian Darya would not head for the Baniyas refinery in Syria. Washington reacted to the Aug. 16 events by threatening to deny visas to the Adrian Darya's crew, should they ever come to the United States. Reports indicated that the ship was awaiting the arrival of a new crew and captain before it got underway. Before they arrive, the Gibraltar court could consider a separate application from the U.S. Department of Justice to seize the tanker, introducing another legal wrinkle to the situation.

While the ultimate fate of the vessel remains up in the air, its eventual direction and destination could raise further concerns about an escalation between Iran and the West. Here are some possibilities to monitor over the next few days.

The Tanker Heads East

If it clears the last legal hurdle in Gibraltar, Iranian shipping sources said the Adrian Darya would sail east into the Mediterranean, bound for Italy and Greece. Fully laden, the vessel cannot traverse the Suez Canal on a path back to Iran, so an eastern course would make one of those destinations plausible. However, it's unclear whether any EU refiner would accept delivery in violation of U.S. sanctions. While it's possible that the tanker could head for a Turkish or Russian port, there are no indications of that thus far. While Iran could also direct the Adrian Darya to Syria to discharge its cargo despite its pledge, that would significantly raise the risk that U.S. or British forces would seize the vessel. A Syrian destination could also have some effect on talks between Iran and the European Union over continuing the nuclear deal.

At any point along its journey, the United States could try to board and seize the vessel.

The Tanker Heads West

If the Adrian Darya sails west out of the Mediterranean, it could head to any number of destinations, but the most likely ones would be either a circuitous return to Iran or a refiner in India or China that still imports Iranian crude. Alternatively, it could end up in a floating storage facility.

A U.S. Seizure at Sea

At any point along its journey, the United States could try to board and seize the vessel. A U.S. seizure by force would elevate the already high levels of tension between Washington and Iran, raising the prospect of Iranian retaliation. That could come in the form of a seizure or attack against American assets near Iran, including tankers carrying crude for U.S. customers.

The Adrian Darya's release could also lead Iran to return the British-flagged Stena Imperio, a tanker that Islamic Revolutionary Guards Forces seized on July 19. The vessel and its crew remain in Iranian custody. 

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