Britain’s Mediterranean territory Gibraltar decided to free a seized Iranian oil tanker, but did not indicate when or if the ship would set sail after the United States launched a new, last-minute legal bid to hold it.
The Grace 1 was seized by British Royal Marine commandos off the coast of the territory at the western mouth of the Mediterranean on July 4 on suspicion of violating European Union sanctions by taking oil to Syria, a close ally of Iran.
Two weeks later, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz leading into the Gulf.
The tankers have become pawns in the stand-off between Iran and the West, their fate tangled up in diplomatic differences between the EU big powers and the United States.
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo decided to lift the detention order after written assurances from Tehran the ship would not discharge its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria.
“In light of the assurances received, there are no longer reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 to ensure compliance with the EU Sanctions Regulation,” Picardo said.
Gibraltar officials did not make clear whether the US legal bid would mean the ship would have to be detained further or, if so, for how long.
“Separately, the United States Department of Justice requested a new legal procedure for the detention of the vessel should commence,” Picardo said. “That is a matter for our independent Mutual Legal Assistance authorities who will make an objective, legal determination of the request for separate proceedings.”
The US State Department said the United States determined the ship was helping Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which Washington designated a terrorist organisation.
“In the case of the M/T Grace I, we continue to act consistent with our existing policies concerning those who provide material support to the IRGC,” the State Department said.
Iran said the ship would sail shortly and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the US bid to prevent it leaving “piracy”.
“America desperately tried to block release of the tanker at the last minute, but faced a miserable defeat,” Iran’s ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeidinejad, said on Twitter. “All preparations are done for the tanker to sail into open waters and the vessel will soon leave Gibraltar.”
The tanker remains anchored though its prow moved by at least 180 degrees. It is unclear whether that was due to strong sea currents or preparations to sail.
A small vessel approached Grace 1, which lowered a ladder at least two people used to reach the ship deck where they shook hands with people on board.
Jalil Eslami, deputy head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organisation, told the semi-official Mehr news agency Grace 1 would head to “Mediterranean ports”, citing “an announcement by the owner of the tanker”. Eslami did not identify the owner.
Britain’s Foreign Office said Iran must abide by its pledge the ship would not sail for Syria. There was “no comparison or linkage between Iran’s unacceptable and illegal seizure of, and attacks on, commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and enforcement of EU Syria sanctions by the Government of Gibraltar,” it added in a statement.
Britainius is in a delicate diplomatic position since seizing Grace 1. The United States is its closest ally, but like other European countries it disagrees with US President Donald Trump’s policy on Iran, after Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last year.
Several diplomatic sources said Britain seized the vessel at the request of the United States, although Gibraltar denies it was ordered to do so.
Britain and Iran deny they would swap the tankers. There is widespread expectation British-flagged Stena Impero will not be freed until the Iranian tanker is released.
Erik Hanell, CEO and president of Stena Impero’s owner, Stena Bulk, said “any event which contributes in any way” to getting the crew free in Iran “must be viewed as positive”.
European countries including Britain disapproved Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal, an international agreement guaranteeing Iran access to trade in return for curbs to its atomic programme.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran with the aim of halting oil exports. European countries lifted sanctions but still have a ban on selling oil to Syria, in place since 2011.
Britain, which insists its Iran policy will not change under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, repeatedly indicated it wants a compromise over the tanker.
US national security adviser John Bolton visited London, offering help on Britain’s exit from the EU, due on October 31. Britain plans to join a US-led maritime security mission in the Gulf.