Iran oil tanker: Gibraltar orders release of Grace 1


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Media captionGrace 1: Inside the seized supertanker

Gibraltar has released an Iranian oil tanker detained last month on suspicion of sanctions-busting despite a last-minute plea by the US authorities.

The UK territory received written assurances from Iran that the ship would not discharge its cargo in Syria.

Grace 1, carrying Iranian oil, was stopped by Royal Marines on 4 July, triggering a standoff with Tehran.

Gibraltar’s chief justice, Anthony Dudley, said no US application was currently before the court.

An independent legal body would make a determination on the American request, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear when the tanker would put out to sea.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the US attempt to stop the tanker, accusing the Trump administration of attempted “piracy”.

A couple of weeks after the Iranian tanker was stopped, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Gulf and, despite official denials, there has been speculation of a swap if the Grace 1 is freed.

Relations between the US and Iran have deteriorated sharply since US President Donald Trump took office in 2017, with the two countries coming close to armed conflict in June.

The release of the Grace 1 inevitably raises all sorts of questions but it also points to a possible resolution of the stand-off between Britain and Iran.

The Iranians had detained the Stena Impero in apparent retaliation for the seizure of the Grace 1. While Britain insists that the two episodes are in no sense the same – one they argue is legal, the other not – the freeing of the Iranian tanker would seem to be an essential prerequisite for a resolution.

But where does this leave the Americans? They made a last-minute attempt to have the vessel turned over to them, but appear not to have lodged a formal legal request. Might they still have time to do this? What grounds would they have for doing so?

And how might such a move risk raising tensions in the Gulf further with the Iranian foreign minister already accusing Washington of attempted piracy?

How was the Iranian tanker seized?

It was stopped after the government of Gibraltar suggested it was heading for Syria, in breach of EU sanctions against Syria.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Grace 1 off Gibraltar

About 30 marines were flown from the UK to Gibraltar to help police detain the tanker and its cargo, at the request of the Gibraltarian government.

The initial seizure of the tanker sparked a diplomatic crisis between the UK and Iran which escalated when the Stena Impero was seized on 19 July.

Last week, the UK announced it would join a US-led taskforce to protect merchant ships travelling through the key shipping route in the Strait of Hormuz.

Almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the narrow strait, which lies off the south coast of Iran.

Why did the court not consider the American request?

Confirming that the tanker had been “released from detention”, Mr Picardo explained that the US justice department had requested that a “new legal procedure for the detention of the vessel should be commenced”.

“That is a matter for our independent Mutual Legal Assistance authorities who will make an objective, legal determination of that request for separate proceedings,” he said.

Why are US relations with Iran so strained?

Washington suspects Iran of continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons, something Tehran has always denied, and also accuses it of seeking to destabilise the Middle East.

Last year, the US withdrew from a 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear activities and re-imposed sanctions against the country.

The UK and other European countries have said they remain committed to the deal.

Washington has also blamed Iran for a series of attacks on tankers in waters off Gulf Arab states over the summer, an accusation Tehran denies.

In June, Mr Trump was reportedly on the verge of bombing sites in Iran in response to the downing of an American drone.

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