Freed Iranian Tanker Could Split Crude Load Onto Smaller Ships Headed for Syria, Report Says

Chances for European efforts at renewed U.S.-Iran talks increasingly under strain as Mike Pompeo says 'reliable information' shows tanker headed to Syrian port

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The Iranian flag flies on board the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, Gibraltar, August 18, 2019.
The Iranian flag flies on board the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, Gibraltar, August 18, 2019.Credit: \ JON NAZCA/ REUTERS

The Iranian oil tanker recently released from Gibraltar could still be looking to bring its cargo to Syria, in violation of US sanctions and an Iranian promise made to British authorities, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

Quoting sources familiar with the ship’s plans, the report said it was looking to split its load of crude oil onto smaller ships, which would then be able to complete the cargo’s suspected journey.

The fate and final destination of the ship, and its 2 million barrels of oil, have been the subject of scrutiny since Gibraltar released it on August 18th, following an Iranian pledge that it would not go to Syria. 

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The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday announced it had blacklisted the tanker and sanctioned its captain, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington believed the tanker was headed to Syria.

"Anyone providing support to the Adrian Darya 1 risks being sanctioned," Treasury Under Secretary Sigal Mandelker said in a statement. 

"We have reliable information that the tanker is underway and headed to Tartus, Syria. I hope it changes course," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter. 

"It was a big mistake to trust Zarif," he said referring to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had given assurances to Britain the tanker would not sail to Syria. 

According to Refinitiv tracking data, the Adrian Darya-1, formerly known as Grace 1, made another U-turn on Friday and headed for Turkey's Iskenderun port, 200 km (124 miles) north of Syria's Baniyas refinery, the tanker's suspected original destination.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday that despite the tracking data, the tanker was "for sure" not going to Turkish ports but rather towards Lebanese waters. Beirut said it was not informed of the plan.

This raises the possibility that a ship-to-ship transfer of cargo may be attempted once it nears Lebanon's coast. 

A crew member raises the Iranian flag at Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously Grace 1, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 18, 2019. Credit: \ JON NAZCA/ REUTERS

Options ahead

Shipping sources said the tanker could potentially discharge its cargo offshore near Lebanon's Tripoli port, close to Syria's coastline between Lebanon and Turkey.

There is a ship-to-ship transfer anchorage outside of Tripoli port limits. Beirut and Tripoli ports have both served as transhipment hubs for cargoes bound for Syria in recent years during Syria's conflict. 

An Iranian government spokesman was quoted on Monday as saying Iran had sold the oil aboard the tanker and that the vessel's owner, whose identity he did not disclose, would decide its destination. 

After its release at Gibraltar, the ship stated that its destination was the Greek port of Kalamata, then Turkey's Mersin. On Thursday, it abruptly changed course, heading first west then south, away from the Turkish coast. 

Adrian Darya 1 sets sail from Gibraltar, August 17, 2019.Credit: Marcos Moreno,AP

While west of Cyprus on Friday morning, it did a similar maneuvre, doubling back on itself. 

If the oil does reach Syria, European powers, who have been attempting to revive talks over regional security and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, could find themselves into an ever more difficult position. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that if the tanker again heads to Syria, Washington will take every action it can consistent with U.S. sanctions. 

"Vessels like the Adrian Darya 1 enable the (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force) 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," the Treasury's Sigal Mandelker's Friday statement said. 

The Trump administration had earlier conveyed "our strong position via diplomatic channels to all ports in the Mediterranean that should be forewarned about facilitating" the tanker, a State Department spokesperson, who declined to be named, said.