Spain has a problem with Great Britain’s decision to seize the Iran oil tanker off Gibraltar earlier this month. Although the situation is all very “he said, she said,” it does paint a rather interesting diplomatic picture on what may have led up to the July 4th raid. EL PAÍS in Spain reports the kerfuffle is all about a territorial dispute but there may be more lurking in the shadows (emphasis mine).
According to the official version of events, London alerted Madrid about the presence of the supertanker and warned that “there was going to be an intervention by British forces to detain it in the port of Gibraltar.”
But the seizure did not take place in the port, which is part of Gibraltar’s territory, but further out in waters that Spain considers its own. In spite of it, Madrid made no attempt at halting the boarding operation.
“Spain did not want to interfere because this was about upholding EU sanctions,” said a ministry source. A Civil Guard patrol boat was sent out to monitor the operation…
While Gibraltarian authorities did not mention a US intelligence tip-off, Spain believes this is what triggered the operation. Acting [Foreign Minister Josep] Borrell said that Washington had alerted London about the supertanker’s presence in European waters, rather than informing Spain.
Also of note is the fact it appears Spain knew about the tanker not from the British, but from the United States. From EL PAÍS, last week:
Washington advised Madrid of the arrival of the supertanker 48 hours ahead of time, and the Spanish Navy followed its passage through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was expected to cross via international waters, as many Iranian vessels do without being stopped.
Surprisingly, on the night of July 3, it entered into waters that London classes as British Gibraltar Territorial Waters (BGTW), and dropped anchor just two miles off the Gibraltarian coast in order to resupply.
That was the moment that the Gibraltar police, supported by 30 British marines, took advantage of to board the tanker. A Spanish Civil Guard patrol boat headed toward the vessel, but the Royal Navy cut off its path.
That is quite interesting and casts National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “excellent news” tweet in a bit of a different light. It almost comes off more like Hannibal Smith’s, “I love it when a plan comes together,” versus a Montgomery Burns-like “Excellent.” That’s if, of course, the U.S. intelligence community was involved in tipping off the British to the tanker and its contents after calling Spain. Simon Tisdall at The Guardian believes this is the case, writing Great Britain was duped by Bolton into engagement. He’s also worried how the seized tanker situation might affect the Iran Deal which has been on wobbly legs since Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
What makes this situation more curious is the response – or lack thereof – by the European Union over the raid. Keele University lecturer Barry Ryan wrote at The Conversation about his perplexion towards the EU’s silence on the tanker seizure and the aftermath.
[T]here was no statement from the office of the European External Action Service, the EU body responsible for conducting the bloc’s foreign and security policy. Not a word of gratitude. Not even a nod. This was a deliberate and strategic use of silence…
Another glaring silence followed from the EU a few days later when the Iranians, quite theatrically, dispatched around 30 of its elite forces to harass an Isle of Man-registered BP supertanker in the Straits of Hormuz, The British were compelled to send a warship to the region to protect their commercial fleet, implicitly joining the American’s motley maritime coalition in the Gulf of Arabia against Iranian threats to the shipping corridor.
Once again, other than passing a cursory warning about the situation, the EU’s foreign and security body did not comment. The silence conveyed its dissatisfaction to the US at the way it was manipulating EU sanctions to its own ends. More pointedly, the silence was trained upon Britain’s cumbersome attempt to court US military objectives while claiming to support the delicate diplomacy favoured by the EU towards Iran.
EL PAÍS suggested the U.S. let Great Britain and Gibraltar take the lead on the raid because it would be easier to get judges to approve seizing the tanker.
The counter-theory is from Patrick Cockburn in a piece in The Independent theorizing this is just another in a laundry list of mistakes the UK has made over the Middle East, especially in light of its Brexit plan.
[G]iven the inevitability of the Iranian reaction against British naval forces too weak to defend British-flagged tankers, the British move looks more like a strategic choice dictated by a lack of other options.
Confrontation with the EU over Brexit means that Britain has no alternative but to ally itself ever more closely to the US…
Iran expresses no doubt that Britain is acting as a US proxy, though this has been true for a long time. But life as a proxy may be particularly dangerous in the Gulf at the moment because of the peculiar nature of the confrontation between the US and Iran in which neither side wants to engage in an all-out war.
This makes it necessary to act through proxies like the UK, an approach that minimises the chances of Americans being killed and Donald Trump having no option but to retaliate in kind.
Iran is being visibly hurt by sanctions but Iranians are more likely to blame the US for their sufferings than their own government. The US is not going to launch a ground invasion, as it did in Iraq in 2003, and, so long as this is off the table, Iran can sustain the military pressures.
It sounds like Dread Empire by Glen Cook mixed with a bit of Cold War espionage for good measure.
This is why U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s potential involvement with soothing tensions with Iran is a positive sign. Should America and Iran reach some sort of detente it would keep Great Britain from being dragged in as some sort of proxy in a war – giving it time to settle whatever hurt feelings remain with the EU over Brexit. The territorial disputes would remain; however, the anger over the raid would dissipate over time and the complaint would be forgotten.