LONDON: Britain’s Mediterranean territory Gibraltar yesterday decided to free a seized Iranian oil tanker, but did not immediately indicate when or if the ship would set sail after the US launched a new, last-minute legal bid to hold it.
The Grace 1 was seized by British Royal Marine commandos in darkness 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.
Two weeks later, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz leading into the Gulf.
The two tankers have become pawns in the standoff between Iran and the West, their fate tangled up in the diplomatic differences between the EU’s big powers and the US.
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo decided to lift the detention order after formal written assurances from Tehran that the ship would not discharge its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria.
“In light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention
of the Grace 1 to ensure compliance with the EU Sanctions Regulation,” Picardo said.
However, 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 US Department of Justice has requested that a new legal procedure for the detention of the vessel should be commenced,” Picardo said. “That is a matter for our independent Mutual Legal Assistance authorities who will make an objective, legal determination of that request for separate proceedings.”
The tanker remains anchored, though its prow has moved around by at least 180 degrees. It was unclear whether this was due to the strong sea
currents off Gibraltar or if it could be preparing to sail.
Earlier, a small vessel approached the Grace 1, which lowered a step ladder that at least two persons used to reach the ship deck where they shook hands with people already on board.
Jalil Eslami, deputy head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organisation, told the semi-official Mehr news agency the Grace 1 would head to “Mediterranean ports”, citing “an announcement by the owner of the tanker”.
Britain’s Foreign Office said Iran must abide by its pledge that 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 the enforcement of EU Syria sanctions by the Government of Gibraltar,” it added in a statement.
Several diplomatic sources have said Britain seized the vessel at the request of the US, although Gibraltar denies that it was ordered to do so.
Erik Hanell, president of the owner of the Stena Impero, Stena Bulk, said “any event which contributes in any way” to getting the crew of its ship free in Iran “must be viewed as positive”.