Gibraltar orders release of Iranian tanker

Court decision comes after late US attempt to detain the 'Grace 1'

A man paddles on a surfboard near the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 as it sits anchored after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted detention order yesterday, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain August 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Gibraltar’s government has ordered the release of the Iranian tanker seized off its coast after receiving assurances its cargo of crude oil would not be unloaded in Syria.

Iranian television said on Friday the ship would be reflagged and would prepare to set sail through the Mediterranean.

"Based on the owner's request, the oil tanker Grace 1 will depart for the Mediterranean after being reflagged under the Iranian flag and renamed Adrian Darya after preparing for the journey," Jalil Eslami, deputy head of Iran's Ports and Maritime Organisation, was quoted as saying.

“The 25-member crew will start their journey after preparations, including refuelling,” Mr Eslami said.

The order to release the Grace 1 followed a last-ditch legal effort by the United States to keep the ship in detention following its seizure on July 4 because of suspicions that its load was bound for the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Iran’s foreign minister said a US attempt at “piracy” had failed and the decision potentially clears the way for the release of a UK-flagged ship held by Iran.

The US threatened a visa ban on the crew of the tanker, after saying the Grace 1 was assisting Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

"Crewmembers of vessels assisting the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) by transporting oil from Iran may be ineligible for visas or admission to the United States under the terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

"The maritime community should be aware that the US government intends to revoke visas held by members of such crews.

Grace 1 was commandeered by British marines after Gibraltar's government was told that the oil was heading towards the Baniyas refinery in Syria, under the control of the Assad government.

Gibraltar’s government released further documents on Thursday in which it said that navigation charts, emails and voyage plans all pointed to the final destination being Baniyas.

The decision to release the ship followed a meeting between chief minister Fabian Picardo and Iranian official in London on July 19 and weeks of “constructive” discussions, according to a statement from the Gibraltar government.

Iran sent written assurances on August 13 saying that the oil would not go to a country facing EU sanctions, the statement said.

“This assurance had the effect of ensuring that we have deprived the Assad regime in Syria of more than $140 million of valuable crude oil,” said Mr Picardo.

“In light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1,” he said.


Pictures: 'Grace 1' seized off the coast of Gibraltar


“The net effect is that this operation has become the most successful implementation of the European sanctions regime to date.”

However, Iran's ambassador to the UK said Tehran had made no guarantees that the ship would not sail for Syria.

“There is no issue of a commitment or a guarantee. We had announced from the very beginning that the destination of the tanker was not Syria,” Hamid Baeidinejad was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.

Gibraltar's government had earlier confirmed a delay in the release of the vessel after receiving the US request for a continued detention. A hearing was heard later Thursday when a judge said that there was no US application before the court and the ship was clear to leave, according to the Gibraltar Chronicle.

It was not immediately clear when the ship would leave or if there were further opportunities for the US to prevent its departure.

The decision was welcomed as a victory by Iran. "Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism -- including depriving cancer patients of medicine -- the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas," said foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a tweet.

"This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin's contempt for the law."

The release of the ship against the apparent wishes of the US highlights the different approaches towards Iran between the US and other European nations.

Gibraltar said it has been seeking to de-escalate tensions and confirmed to local media that the captain of Grace 1 and three officers had been released.

EU governments have tried to find way to trade with Iran even after the US pulled out of the nuclear deal. The decision by the Trump administration stopped billions of dollars' worth of business deals, largely halted the sale of Iran's crude oil internationally and sharply depreciated Iran's currency, the rial.

The latest US move to prevent the release of Grace 1 by the US had the potential to re-ignite tensions with Tehran amid increase concerns about the continued safe passage of shipping in the Gulf region.

The release could now clear the way for the British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, which was seized in the Strait of Hormuz two weeks later, to also be freed.

It was taken in what was regarded as an act of retaliation by Iran. The UK says Iran unlawfully seized the Stena Impero, which is owned by a Swedish company, but Tehran claims it broke maritime regulations.

In a statement Britain's foreign and commonwealth office has said it will not allow Iran to bypass what it called "vital" EU sanctions on Syria. It also referenced Iran's manoeuvres in the Arabian Gulf like the seizure of the Stena Impero.

“There is no comparison or linkage between Iran’s unacceptable and illegal seizure of, and attacks on, commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the enforcement of EU Syria sanctions by the Government of Gibraltar,” the statement read.

The seizure of the Stena Impero prompted the UK to giving all of its flagged vessels a naval escort. The government of new prime minister Boris Johnson has also joined a US-led naval force, viewed by Tehran as a move to align itself more closely to Washington's hawkish policy on Iran.

Two US administration officials said the Grace 1 should now be considered a pariah.

Anyone that does business with the ship, its crew or its owners, or provides financial transactions or port services to the vessel could be liable for evading US sanctions, the officials said.