British tanker to be released ‘within days’ amid tensions over Iranian tanker pictured off Syria

The Stena Impero was seized by Iran for alleged marine violations after an operation by British commandos detained an Iranian-flagged tanker suspected of trying to deliver oil to the Syrian regime

FILE PHOTO: Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at undisclosed place off the coast of Bandar Abbas, Iran August 22, 2019. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo
Powered by automated translation

Iran has hinted that the release of a British-flagged oil tanker could be completed “within days” despite ongoing rows over the possible violation of sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, in an appearance on state-run TV channel IRNA, said the “necessary steps” to release the Swedish-owned ship were “underway”.

"The final steps of the legal procedure are underway and, God willing, the boat will be released in the coming days," he said, without giving further details.

The ship and its crew were intercepted in the Strait of Hormuz by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in July after being accused by Tehran of “violating international maritime rules”.

Seven of the crew were later released by Iran on humanitarian grounds but 16 remain in detention aboard the ship.

The seizure of the Stena Impero was seen as a tit-for-tat move after British authorities detained the Iranian tanker Adrian Darya 1 in July on suspicion it was shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

Rows over the destination of the Adrian Darya 1, formerly named Grace 1, intensified when it reappeared in photographs near the Syrian port of Tartus on Friday, having after turning off its tracker in August.

US national security advisor John Bolton on Friday posted a satellite image appearing to show the ship at anchor near the deep water port, which also houses a Russian naval presence.

The maritime tracking organisation TankerTrackers verified the ship’s position using updated satellite imagery, but refuted claims that the tanker’s cargo of 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude had been offloaded.

Iran claimed on Sunday that the Adrian Darya 1 had discharged its cargo of oil and was berthed in a Mediterranean port and early news reports also suggested that at least some of the ship's oil had been delivered.

But TankerTrackers noted that offloading the amount of oil on board the ship would take “at least” 24 hours, adding that Syria has no port deep enough for the ship to berth at.

The tanker had been detained in Gibraltar by British authorities.

Gibraltar released the ship on August 18 after receiving written assurances from Iran that it would not head to countries under EU sanctions.

Tehran denied it had made any promises about the destination of the ship and the US warned it would impose sanctions on any buyer of Iranian oil after the ship left the British territory.

In a tweet revealing the location of the vessel, Mr Bolton accused Tehran of “lying and spreading terror”.

Iran last month said it had "sold the oil" aboard the tanker and that the owner will decide the destination, but it did not identify the buyer.

The ship is part of a network of tankers operated by the IRGC’s Quds Force, the wing of the paramilitary organisation tasked with external operations.

On Sunday, The US treasury department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the Quds Force was “testing” the international community.

TankerTrackers have monitored the arrival of several other Iranian-flagged tankers in Syrian waters, calculating that, since August 2018, 21.6 million barrels of Iranian crude oil have reached Syria.

The watchdog added that 7.5 million barrels have arrived in the time since the Adrian Darya 1 was detained in Gibraltar.