The Grace 1 oil tanker that is at the center of an international crisis involving the UK, US, Iran and other countries, fueling tensions from the Persian Gulf to Gibraltar. The tanked received a fresh coat of paint according to photos published by GBC news in Gibraltar on Saturday. Re-flagged as the Adrian Darya, it could be sailing toward Syria or another destination soon. But the US wants it detained.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned mariners against crewing ships linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or others under US sanctions. The US has assessed that the Grace 1 has assisted the IRGC in transporting oil to Syria. "The maritime community should be aware that the US government intends to revoke visas held by members of such crews," Pompeo said.
Meanwhile, the US Justice Department has put out a warrant for the seizure of the Grace 1. It is accused of financial links to the IRGC.
Iranian media says the ship will leave Gibraltar within 48 hours. It was detained there on July 4, but Iran responded by detaining a British ship. Iran says the Gibraltar courts have withstood US pressure and the ship will be on its way soon. Iran thinks it has called the UK's bluff. The UK originally sent Royal Marines to stop the Grace 1. Iran's response, seizing the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, involved a stunt with Iranian helicopters, seemingly showing that Iran has the same naval prowess as the UK.
In one sense, the naval diplomacy taking place now is not as interesting as previous centuries – like Admiral Horatio Nelson's search for the French fleet in the Napoleonic wars – but the stakes are just as high, because Iran and the US are engaged in increasing rounds of tensions that could lead to conflict. The US called off a drone strike in June after one of its most sophisticated surveillance drones was shot down by Iran. Iranian proxies have been accused of firing rockets near US bases in Iraq, and Iranian-supported militia groups have seen some of their munition storage facilities explode in mysterious conflagrations in recent weeks. In short: the Middle East is a on edge.
Iran's main goal is to get the Grace 1, now renamed, out of port and on its way. Then, with the UK asking for de-escalation and in the midst of the Brexit crisis, Iran hopes that it can quietly release the British ship and all will be well. The US has put out the paperwork to try to slow the Grace 1's progress, but Washington is focused now on a deal to withdraw from Afghanistan. Will it try to get someone else to stop the ship en route to Syria?
Much is at stake because Iran wants this to look like a win that will appear to isolate the US. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was recently in Qatar slamming "foreign" powers, just miles from a US military base. Tehran wants to show that it can get around US sanctions and do as it pleases, whether that means growing relations with NATO-member Turkey, or working with Russia. The US says Iran is under maximum pressure, but Iran wants to turn the tables and show that it too can pressure others, whether that means in the Gulf, or as far away as London. The oil tanker sitting in waters off Gibraltar is a key to Iran's ambitions.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.