The United States Naval Institute has highlighted in a new report that Iranian fuel tankers are being escorted by Russia's military in the Mediterranean in order to prevent a high seas intercept or detention by American or allied vessels, as happened in 2019 with the Grace-1 off Gibraltar which involved seizure by elite British forces.
Citing satellite imagery, the US Naval Institute's official news page details that "Last week, the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Samah entered the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal." The imagery shows that:
"After a few miles, the 900-foot-long ship stopped reporting its position and destination. Evidence suggests the ship sailed to Syria, escorted by two Russian Navy ships, including a destroyer."
Tankers transporting Iranian oil have often used this "ghosting" technique - that is, switching off its tracking transponder, in order to evade US sanctions on Iranian oil exports. But a Russian military escort is a new one.
The report continues by noting this raises the stakes for any potential future attempt to seize Iranian fuel, as also happened recently with Venezuela-bound tankers crossing the Atlantic:
Russia’s role in protecting the shipment may change the dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the past, Iranian tankers sailing to Syria have been intercepted by the U.K. Royal Navy. The Russian Navy escort could be viewed as a precautionary step, raising the political and military risks of any intervention by the Royal Navy or others.
There's lately been a major uptick in Russian naval traffic observed off Syria's coast, including recent armed exercises to ensure "smooth passage of civilian ships" according to defense ministry statements.
Syria remains one of the few countries Iran can offload large quantities of oil to, given Syria is (like Venezuela) facing its own fuel crisis due to biting sanctions but also the ongoing American occupation of oil and gas concentrated Deir Ezzor province.
Russian Navy exercises off Syria, to ensure the "smooth passage of civilian ships"https://t.co/oxRnyHha67— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) October 21, 2020
There's further been an ongoing major gas shortage in Syria, with cars observed waiting in lines for miles just to access gas pumps.
The recently observed Russian destroyer escorts to Iranian vessels are believed to have aided in the offloading of Iranian fuel to the Baniyas oil terminal on Syria's coast.