By Christine Guluzian Coombs

Gibraltar once again demonstrated the significance of its geo-strategic positioning when, on the 4th of July 2019, the Gibraltar Police and Customs force halted a 330-metre supertanker, Grace 1, suspected of heading to the Syrian government-owned Baniyas oil refinery in Syria to deliver crude oil in breach of European Union sanctions.

Approximately 16 Royal Gibraltar Police officers detained the supertanker within Gibraltar Territorial Waters, with the help of 30 Royal Marines flown in from the UK to Gibraltar to lead the mission at Gibraltar’s request. Evidence would confirm that the tanker had been carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil. According to the shipping trade publication Lloyd’s List, the tanker had loaded the oil and embarked from Iran in April and had subsequently taken an unconventionally slow and lengthy route around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa before reaching the Mediterranean. Grace 1 was eventually detained under the Sanctions Act 2019 with the Gibraltar Supreme Court ruling it would be held for an additional 14 days, during which the tanker remained anchored approximately three kilometres off the east coast of Gibraltar. The Master of the Vessel, Chief Officer and two Second Officers were arrested and later released on bail.

The Iranian government condemned the detention of Grace 1 as an “illegal interception”, despite being in breach of the EU Syria Sanctions Act, put in place over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government due to the violent repression of its civilian population and to encourage a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was quick to clarify that the tanker could be released if the UK received sufficient assurances that the oil was not bound for Syria. Hunt’s, and therefore the UK’s, stance that “our concern has always been destination, not origin of the oil” thus differs from that of the US, which has specifically targeted oil exports from Iran with sanctions following President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran Nuclear Deal on the 8th of May 2018.

The US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA signified a break in policy with its European allies: soon after the withdrawal, the UK, France and Germany expressed their regret at the US’ policy reversal and signalled their continued commitment to the Iran Nuclear Deal. Most recently in July, the three countries issued a Joint Statement calling for continued dialogue to keep the deal alive and re-affirming its intention to keep the Middle East de-nuclearised. The joint statement was particularly timely, considering the detention of Grace 1 came only a few days after Iran had announced it would exceed the amount of uranium enrichment which the JCPOA had been set up to limit.

Meanwhile, on July 11, tensions rose sharply in the Strait of Hormuz – a waterway of major strategic significance for oil supply transit from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world – when the UK Ministry of Defence reported that three Iranian patrol boats approached and attempted to impede a British oil tanker as it was moving out of the Gulf and into the Strait of Hormuz, but was ultimately deterred by a Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose. Considering that approximately 20% of all oil traded worldwide passes through the Strait of Hormuz, conflict in the Strait would have far-reaching repercussions outside of the Persian Gulf. With the US pushing for greater maritime security in the region through a proposal called the Sentinel Program – which seeks to coalesce nations to work with the US and uphold security in the Gulf region – the UK is considering a change in position towards commercial shipping in the Strait, since around 15 to 30 British-flagged tankers and other ships traverse the Persian Gulf daily, with up to three ships passing through the Strait every 24 hours. The recent UK commitment to send additional naval forces to the Gulf region with HMS Duncan could therefore become the rule as opposed to the exception. Thus, the UK will need to find and strike a fine balance between protecting the safe passage of its ships in the Strait, whilst also seeking to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf area, and also continuing its commitment to save the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Overall these series of events have demonstrated that Gibraltar’s strategic positioning means it will always be at the front line with respect to shipping as well as trafficking. However, with tensions having escalated in the strategically significant Strait of Hormuz and with relations between the UK and Iran having reached a critical point, the recent events also showed that despite its relatively small geographic size, Gibraltar’s foray into foreign policy could have inadvertant wider-reaching implications.

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Dr Christine Guluzian Coombs
Dr Christine Guluzian Coombs holds a DPhil from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University. She has since been made a Post-Doctorate Fellow with the Centre for International Studies at the Paris Institute for Political Science (Institut d' Études Politiques de Paris), with The Cato Institute's Defence and Foreign Policy Studies department in Washington DC, and has been a Center Associate with Harvard University's Davis Center. She has conducted research for The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and for a member of the House of Lords. Her articles have been published by The Diplomat, Oxford Analytica, The Washington Examiner, The National Interest, The Hill, The Cato Journal, The Gibraltar Magazine, and The Institute for China-America Studies. She is a Contributor for the French news publication Le Point and for The Gibraltar Magazine. She is also the Gibraltar Alumni Liaison Officer for St Antony's College, Oxford University.