The Pirates of Gibraltar

Photograph Source: Steve – Flickr: Gibraltar – CC BY-SA 2.0

When I hear the word “pirates” certain images conjure up: the silly, moldy, dusty “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride in Disneyland that I saw in my youth; the banal, boring, childish Hollywood movies by the same title that I could not watch for more than a few minutes; or the actual pirates, such as the modern day bandits who were actively raiding ships a few years ago off the coast of Somalia. But the image of British, American and Israeli politicians in three-piece suits or skirts as pirates never came to my mind until very recently. If you don’t know what I am talking about, read the script below which appears in chronological order.

On April 17, 2019, a tanker named Grace 1 left Iran for an unspecified destination with reportedly 2.1 million barrels of crude oil, worth some $130 million. According to a March 20 report in Reuters about how Iran tries to evade US sanctions, the Grace 1 was “Panamanian-flagged and managed by Singapore-based shipping services firm.” The Grace 1, TankerTrackers reported, was built in 1997 and, given its age and size, was not allowed to dock at many ports. It therefore had a history of handling ship-to-ship fuel oil transfers at sea. It would typically receive fuel oil from Iran, the source stated, and then deliver it to smaller vessels.

The tanker appeared to be heading to the Mediterranean Sea. But instead of taking the much shorter route of the Suez Canal, it circled around Africa. Why? Because, according to TankerTrackers, the ship was too heavy and, therefore, too submerged to pass through the shallow Suez Canal. Such heavy tankers can, using pipelines, offload some of their oil before entering the canal and receive them on other side of the canal. However, since Saudi Arabia is part owner of the pipeline, and is hostile to Iran, it would not allow Iran to use the facility.

On July 4, 2019, The New York Times reported that British marines and the port authorities in Gibraltar detained the Grace 1 as it “was carrying crude oil from Iran to Syria, a violation of European Union sanctions against Syria.” It further stated that according to Spain, the tanker had been detained at the request of the United States, and that British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had praised Gibraltar and the British marines “for this bold move to enforce Syria sanctions.” (The New York Times, of course, did not mention the fact that Gibraltar is a British colony with little or no say in international matters, and that carrying oil to Syria by the tanker is merely an allegation.) The report said that Iran had summoned the British ambassador over what it called “illegal” seizure, and the ambassador had been told that the British action “is very strange because these sanctions are not imposed by the Security Council and Iran rejects them.” In other words, these were merely EU imposed sanctions and Iran did not have to abide by them.

Subsequently, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that “UK’s unlawful seizure of a tanker with Iranian oil on behalf of the B team is piracy, pure and simple” (Press TV, July 8). By the B team he meant US National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, individuals who were actively pushing for a war with Iran. Zarif reiterated that the British argument that the tanker was seized because it was in breach of the EU sanctions against Syria made no sense, since “Iran is neither a member of the EU nor subject to any European oil embargo.” In addition, he pointed out that since EU was against extraterritoriality, it made no sense to argue that Britain seized the tanker on behest of the US government, which amounts to imposition of US laws on other countries. Moreover, various sources reported that according to Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, the Grace 1 was not even going to Syria but was going “somewhere else.”

On July 11, UPI reported that the Royal Gibraltar Police had arrested the captain and chief officer of the Grace 1, who were Indian nationals, on “suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.” According to the report, the Grace 1 had been searched and documents and electronic devices had been seized and examined. The report also mentioned that Iranian gunboats in the Strait of Hormuz had attempted to detain the British Heritage tanker, but they had backed down following a warning from the British warship HMS Montrose.

On July 13, the Guardian reported that Hunt had told Zarif that Britain would facilitate the release of the detained Grace 1 oil tanker if there were guarantees it would not go to Syria and that Zarif had told him that Iran wanted to resolve the issue and did not want to escalate tensions. Nevertheless, the report went on to say, the UK was increasing its military presence in the Persian Gulf by sending a second warship to the region to protect British commercial oil tankers. The report further stated that Hunt and Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, had “agreed the importance of deescalating the current situation as quickly as possible while noting the importance of Gibraltar enforcing EU sanctions against Syria.”

Six days later Reuters reported that the Gibraltar government has announced that its “Supreme Court,” at the request of the “Attorney General,” has extended the period of detention of the Grace 1 for an additional 30 days and has set a new hearing for August15. It also reported that Fabian Picardo held a “constructive and positive” meeting with Iranian officials in London to discuss the tanker. On July 18 British Prime Minister Theresa May paid tribute to Gibraltar’s efforts in detaining the Grace 1 and thanked Gibraltar’s chief minister for detaining the oil tanker (The National).

On July 19, in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran seized a British tanker called Stena Impero which sailed under the UK flag and was registered in London. The seizure followed the same dramatic routine that had been followed by the British when they captured the Grace 1. In a video that Iran released shortly after the incident, Iranian commandos in black ski masks and fatigues rappelled from a helicopter onto the British tanker. Even though Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claimed that the Stena Impero was seized because it failed to follow international maritime regulations, it was clear that the act was simply a tit for tat and intended to put pressure on the British government to release the Grace 1. The Tasnim news agency reported that the Guards had also stopped another UK-operated tanker but released it afterward. The British raised a hue and cry. Jeremy Hunt stated: “I’m extremely concerned by the seizure of two naval vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz. . . I will shortly attend a COBR [Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms] meeting to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels” (CNBC, July 19). BBC also quoted Hunt as saying that the Iranian seizures were “completely unacceptable” and “freedom of navigation must be maintained.” (Note that when British imperial forces engage in an act of piracy, it is acceptable, but when Iranians try to copy them it is “completely unacceptable”!) Hunt warned Iran that “if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences.”

In a detailed article on July 20 the Guardian unmasked the role that the US, and particularly John Bolton, had played in the seizure of the Grace 1. It wrote that when the Grace 1 was captured, Bolton tried to act as if he had no previous knowledge of the act by tweeting: “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions.” But “Bolton’s national security team was directly involved in manufacturing the Gibraltar incident.” The Grace 1 had been under surveillance by US satellites since April, when it was anchored off Iran. Once it headed for the Mediterranean Sea the US informed Spain of its arrival and its passage through the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain, which does not recognize British rule over Gibraltar, took no action. But the British, who had also been told to seize the tanker, acted and stormed the tanker with 30 marines. The result, as the Guardian pointed out, was that “Britain has been plunged into the middle of an international crisis it is ill-prepared to deal with.” Iran’s retaliation in snatching the Stena Impero, the Guardian stated, has further exposed “Britain’s diplomatic isolation and its military and economic vulnerability,” and “Hunt’s appeal for international support for Britain has so far fallen on deaf ears.”

The British pirates and their dominions in Gibraltar, who had been duped by an American pirate, had to give up. On August 15 the British released the Grace 1 despite all efforts by Bolton and his gang to continue the detention of the tanker. Officials in Gibraltar issued a statement saying that that the US Department of Justice had “applied to seize the Grace 1 on a number of allegations,” but a judge in Gibraltar’s Supreme Court later ruled he had not received an “application” for the US seizure (USA Today). Moreover, all legal actions against the tanker’s crew and captain were dropped. The New York Times also reported that Fabian Picardo had issued a statement saying that he had “received written assurance” from Iran that “if released, the destination of Grace 1 would not be an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions” and in “light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1.” When asked where the ship was headed, Picardo answered: “That is not an issue for the authorities in Gibraltar.” According to the report, an oil trader in Iran had said the tanker would sail to Greece and then to Italy.

As the Grace 1 prepared to leave Gibraltar, it changed its name and flag. It was now called Adrian Darya 1 and the flag of Panama was replaced with the Iranian flag (Darya means Sea in Persian). The reason for these changes was that Panama did not want the tanker to sail under its flag anymore. The Adrian Darya 1 then drifted into the Mediterranean Sea with no clear destination (Press TV, August 18). US pirates were on its tail and threatened every country that the tanker tried to get close to.

The first country that the tanker approached was Greece. But the US stated that it had conveyed its “strong position” to the Greek government not to let the tanker dock (Reuters, August 20). According to a US State Department official, “any efforts to assist the tanker could be construed as providing material support to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, which has immigration and potential criminal consequences.” This position had “been communicated not only to Greece but other states and ports in the Mediterranean,” the official stated. Given the US threats, Greece’s government said that there had been no formal announcement that the Adrian Darya 1 will arrive at the Greek port Kalamata. The next day, Greece’s Deputy Foreign Minister stated that we have “sent a clear message that we would not want to facilitate the trafficking of this oil to Syria in any instance,” and that Greece did not even have a port capable of handling such a large oil tanker (CNBC, August 21).

The Adrian Darya 1 then headed for Cyprus. But a Cypriot diplomat stated that “Cyprus wouldn’t allow the Iranian tanker to enter its territory were the vessel to make such a request” (Bloomberg, August 22). The tanker then listed its destination as the port of Mersin in southern Turkey, estimating its arrival to be August 31 (Deutsche Welle, August 24). But given the “paralyzing sanctions” of the Obama Administration, followed by the “maximum pressure” of Trump’s gang, Turkey had stopped buying Iranian oil in May 2019 and would not want to have anything to do with the Iranian oil tanker, especially since it already had a tense relation with the US. On August 25, Bloomberg reported that the tanker had changed “signal sent from the ship’s satellite transponder to ‘For Order,’ a designation meaning the vessel isn’t disclosing any destination.”

On August 26 a sensational news appeared: “Iran sells oil tanker pursued by US” (The Independent). According to the news, in a press conference, an Iranian government spokesperson stated that the tanker had been sold by Iran and the new buyer would decide its ultimate destination. Iran declined to name the buyer and discuss the terms for the sale.

Even though Iran tried to wash its hands of the tanker, US pirates continued their chase. It was now completely unclear where the Adrian Darya 1 might go next and what would happen to it. “Confusion over Iranian tanker’s destination after weeks of ordeal,” was the title of an Aljazeera news item on August 30. After the rumors that the tanker is still heading for another port in Turkey, Turkish Foreign Minister stated: “This tanker is not heading actually to Iskenderun [in Turkey], this tanker is heading to Lebanon.” But Lebanon had already dismissed the scenario, “stressing that it never buys crude oil because it simply does not have refineries.”

On August 30, Press TV reported that the US has blacklisted the Adrian Darya 1 and sanctioned its captain. Indeed, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a statement saying that it is taking action against the Adrian Darya 1 which is “benefiting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).” Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, stated: “Vessels like the Adrian Darya 1 enable the IRGC-QF to ship and transfer large volumes of oil, which they attempt to mask and sell illicitly to fund the regime’s malign activities and propagate terrorism.” (It should be noted that Sigal Pearl Mandelker’s place of birth and citizenship, whether Israel or the US, has been subject of much controversy. But setting that issue aside, like the previous heads of the OFAC, she has shown quite a bit of hostility toward Iran in Israeli affiliated circles, such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and has been instrumental in passing one set of sanctions or another on Iran.)

With the bandits on its tail and having no place to go, the Adrian Darya 1 headed for Syria, precisely the place that the US had tried to prevent it from going in the first place. On August 31 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted “FM @JZarif guaranteed to the UK that the IRGC oil tanker #Grace1 / #AdrianDarya1 would not head to Syria. We have reliable information that the tanker is underway and headed to Tartus, Syria. I hope it changes course. It was a big mistake to trust Zarif” (The Times of Israel).

On September 3 AP reported that the tanker “blacklisted and pursued by the U.S. turned off its tracking beacon off the coast of Syria,” leading to speculation that its oil will end up there. It was further speculated that there will a ship-to-ship transfer of its oil.

One day later, a stunning news appeared: A report by The Financial Times revealed that four days before the US sanctioned the Adrian Darya 1, Akhilesh Kumar, the tanker’s Indian captain, received an email from Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran at the Department of State. Hook wrote to Kumar on August 26: “This is Brian Hook. I work for secretary of state Mike Pompeo and serve as the US Representative for Iran. I am writing with good news.” The good news was that that the Trump Administration would give Kumar “several million dollars” to take the tanker to “a country that would impound the vessel on behalf of the US.” To assure Kumar that the email was genuine, Hook included an official state department phone number. In a second email Hook wrote to Kumar: “With this money you can have any life you wish and be well-off in old age. . . If you choose not to take this easy path, life will be much harder for you.” In the intervening two days, the report went on, the Adrian Darya 1 made “doughnut” shape maneuvers, suggesting that Kumar might have been trying to decide how to react. But ultimately, the captain failed to respond, and Brain Hook emailed him to say that the US Treasury had imposed sanctions on him. According to the report, “in an effort to scare mariners” into understanding that helping Iran evade sanctions comes at a heavy price, in recent months Hook had emailed or texted roughly a dozen captains. (Let me emphasize that the author of the above email(s) is not Don Vito Corleone or even Capitan Hook. It is Brain Hook, the US special representative for Iran at the Department of State. Capitan Hook is quite clever, he offers “a few million dollars” for a ship that is at least worth $130 million! Perhaps that is why Kumar did not respond to his offer!)

With Hook’s bribery and threat email(s) out in the open, and the Adrian Darya 1 close to the Syrian coast, the saga of the Iranian tanker was almost over. On September 5, it was reported that Iran would soon release some of the crew members of UK flagged tanker (The Independent). On the same day US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that he “currently had no plan on his desk to seize the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1” (Reuters). On September 6, the Guardian reported that the tanker is photographed by satellite off the Syrian port of Tartus. On September 8

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi reported that the “Adrian Darya 1 oil tanker, despite acts of sabotage, finally docked on the Mediterranean coast and unloaded its cargo and its owner will make a decision for its future” (Press TV). The British Foreign Office issued an angry statement on September 10 saying it was “now clear that Iran has breached” its “assurances and that the oil has been transferred to Syria and Assad’s murderous regime” (Sky News). On the same day John Bolton was fired by Trump!

The saga of the Iranian tanker would make a great movie about modern day piracy. It could cast many great stars; Bolton, a pirate with a huge mustache fighting his boss while trying to steal an Iranian ship; Hunt, a bumbling pirate who is losing his job along with his boss Teresa May in tears; Pompeo, a large, big belly, jolly pirate, engaged in a Twitter war with Zarif; Capitan Hook, a man with a pirate smile issuing threats and dangling money in front of Indian captains; Sigal Pearl Mandelker, a venomous female pirate out to get Iran on behest of Bibi Netanyahu and Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, etc.

So, listen Hollywood! Instead of making another insipid movie about Pirates of the Caribbean, make a movie about Pirates of Gibraltar. It would be a lot more interesting and it would have a happy ending, not because the good guys win, but because the baddest of all bad dudes lose!

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: