The United States blacklisted an Iranian tanker at the centre of a major diplomatic dispute with Tehran, saying it had “reliable information” the ship was transporting oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
In a statement issued on Friday, the US Treasury Department said the Adrian Darya 1 was “blocked property” and “anyone providing support” to the vessel risked being sanctioned.
The ship’s captain, Akhilesh Kumar, was also blacklisted under the order.
Previously known as Grace 1, the tanker was seized in July by British Royal Marines and held in Gibraltar for six weeks on suspicion it was delivering oil for Tehran’s ally Damascus.
The British overseas territory released the ship – despite US protests – after it said it had received written assurances from Iran that the vessel would not head for countries under EU sanctions.
Tehran later denied it made any promises about the ship’s destination.
Since its release from Gibraltar, the Adrian Darya 1 has been bouncing around the Mediterranean, its every move followed with intense speculation. The vessel was in waters north of Cyprus as of 10:30 GMT on Saturday, according to the MarineTraffic tracking website.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington had “reliable information” the tanker was headed to the Syrian port of Tartus.
“I hope it changes course,” Pompeo said in a tweet.
“It was a big mistake to trust Zarif,” he added, referring to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had given assurances to the UK that the tanker would not sail to Syria.
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. pic.twitter.com/ZJ06MWjvCO
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) August 30, 2019
The tanker has taken centre stage recently amid a crisis roiling the Gulf region and escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew last year from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal brokered between Iran and several world powers.
The vessel’s detention and later release by Gibraltar has fuelled the growing tensions.
Doubts over destination
The tanker on Friday changed its listed destination in its Automatic Identification System to Iskenderun, Turkey, a small port on the Mediterranean Sea.
However, mariners can input any destination into the AIS, so Turkey may not be its true destination. On August 24, it listed its destination as Mersin, Turkey, before removing that from its system. Earlier, it said it was going to Greece.
Iskenderun is some 200km by sea from a refinery in Baniyas, Syria, where authorities alleged the Adrian Darya had been heading before being held in Gibraltar.
Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge the new reported destination of the Adrian Darya, which carries Iranian crude worth about $130m.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the tanker was heading to Iskenderun and claimed it was going to Lebanon.
Speaking in Oslo, Norway, the diplomat said the Turkish state and Turkish private companies were no longer buying oil from Iran, in line with punishing US sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord.
“This tanker is not heading actually to Iskenderun port, this tanker is heading to Lebanon. And we follow actually very closely … it is heading to Lebanon,” Cavusoglu said.
But Lebanon’s Minister of Energy and Water Nada Boustani said in a Twitter post that was not the case and there was a request for the tanker to enter Lebanon. Boustani also said Lebanon does not have a refinery to deal with crude oil.
A senior Iranian official said on Saturday the United States had shown flexibility on the licensing of Iranian oil sales and this was a sign that Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran had been defeated, state media reported.
French President Emmanuel Macron paved the way at a G7 summit a week ago for a potential diplomatic solution to the confrontation.
“Macron met with …Trump during the G7 meeting and the US side has shown some flexibility in the licensing of Iranian oil sales,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted by the state news agency IRNA as saying.
“This is a breach in the US maximum pressure policy and a success for Iran’s policy of maximum resistance,” he said.
Araqchi did not elaborate and there was no immediate French or US comment.
Since Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal, Iran has lost billions of dollars in business deals allowed by the deal as Washington moved to escalate pressure on Tehran, largely blocking it from selling crude oil, a crucial source of hard currency for the country.
In US federal court documents, authorities have alleged the Adrian Darya 1’s true owner is Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a unit answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The US declared the Guard a foreign “terrorist organisation” in April, the first time Washington named a military force of a nation as such and giving it the legal power to issue a warrant for the vessel’s seizure. However, that would require another nation to acknowledge the writ.
On Monday, Iran said the oil on the Adrian Darya 1 had been sold to an unnamed buyer. However, anyone buying it likely would be targeted by US financial sanctions.
Analysts have suggested Iran may choose to offload the oil onto another ship first, given the international attention focused on the vessel.