Gibraltar releases Iranian tanker despite last-minute US effort to seize it
The US made an emergency appeal to Gibraltar to keep the Grace 1 in custody but authorities in the British territory announced on Thursday that they were releasing it.
The ship’s release after more than a month will raise hopes that Iran may now release the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker seized in retaliation by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
It was not immediately clear when the Grace 1 would actually set sail from Gibraltar or if the US would try to take further action to prevent its departure.
The ship was seized on July 4 on the grounds that it was violating EU sanctions on Syria by carrying 2.1 million barrels of crude oil to the Syrian coast, Gibraltarian authorities said.
Fabian Picardo, chief minister of Gibraltar, said he had received written assurances from Iran that the ship would not violate EU sanctions any further.
“In light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 in order to ensure compliance with the EU Sanctions Regulation,” he said.
“With effect from today I have therefore revoked the Specification of the Vessel.”
He said the US request for the detention of the vessel would be considered separately. The emergency American appeal was filed early on Thursday morning and made a number of unspecified allegations about the Grace 1.
There was no immediate US response to Gibraltar’s decision to free the ship. It was not clear if American authorities had given Britain any warning they would try to seize the ship.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, condemned the US effort to stop the Grace 1’s release.
“The US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas. This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump administration's contempt for the law,” he said.
Mr Zarif gave no indication of whether Iran would now move to release the Stena Impero. Iran has occasionally suggested an exchange to free both tankers but never made a formal offer.
A Foreign Office spokesman said there could be “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.
“Freedom of navigation for commercial shipping must be respected and international law upheld.”
Iran seized the Stena Impero on July 19 and has held its 23 crew members in custody since then at the port of the Bandar Abbas. Iran has also seized two other tankers and allegedly used naval mines to attack several other oil vessels in the Persian Gulf.
Tehran has repeatedly accused the UK of seizing the Grace 1 as part of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against the Iranian economy. Britain has denied that allegation.
British warships are now escorting UK-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz as part of a broader US-led naval mission to protect civilian shipping in the region.
The Indian captain of the Grace 1 and three of his officers were also released from arrest in Gibraltar.
The captain previously accused Britain of using unnecessary “brute force” when Royal Marines took the ship. He said the marines pointed guns at his unarmed crew and forced them to kneel on the deck.
“They just pointed the gun and they started shouting look forward, look forward,” he told the BBC. “I was totally shocked I didn’t know what to feel because they didn’t give me a chance to talk.”