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Iran says seized oil tanker off Gibraltar was not headed to Syria

Tehran — Iran was carrying crude oil in the tanker that was seized off Gibraltar last week but denied that it was heading to Syria, according to one of Iran's top diplomats.

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On Thursday, the Gibraltar government said it had "reasonable grounds to believe" that the Panamanian-flagged Grace 1 was carrying a shipment of crude oil to the Banias refinery in Syria and was acting in breach of European Union sanctions against Syria. The ship was detained by the Gibraltar government with the help of the Royal Marines.

"Despite what Britain has claimed, the destination of this oil tanker was not Syria," Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister for political affairs, said Sunday in a televised press conference in Tehran. "As the named port in Syria doesn't basically have the capacity for such super tanker. The destination was somewhere else."

EU sanctions against Syria include a ban on imports of Syrian oil and on upstream investment in the country. The sanctions are aimed at cutting off oil sales to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime and illegal funding of terrorist groups. The 133,000 b/d refinery located in the port Banias is owned by the Banias Refinery Company, which is linked to the Assad regime. The US has separate sanctions against Iran's energy industry, with US President Donald Trump saying he wants Iran's oil exports to fall to zero.

Araghchi also lashed out at the British government for the seizure.

"It was sailing through international waterway in the Gibraltar. No law would allow the British government to stop this oil tanker," he said.

"Of course, we will explore all ways to secure our interests. And we will not leave any possibility to vindicate our rights. But we hope that through diplomatic consultations that exist now, and if necessary legal actions, the issue of the oil tanker is solved soon," Araghchi said.

US and Iran tensions have been rising since Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018. Sanctions against Iran's energy industry were tightened in November and Iran shot down a US drone in June, almost leading the US to strike back. There have been six tanker attacks in the Middle East in the past two months, further escalating tensions in the region.

"In our point of view, the seizure of this oil tanker is piracy," Araghchi said.

--Aresu Eqbali,

--Edited by Claudia Carpenter,