Gibraltar’s Supreme Court ruled to release an Iranian supertanker seized last month on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, despite a last-minute US request to detain the vessel.
Chief Justice Anthony Dudley said that since Iran had guaranteed in writing that the Grace 1 “was never destined to an EU sanctioned entity… there are no longer reasonable grounds to suspect that the detention of the Vessel is required,” adding that the court had not received a written detention request from the United States.
Britain said on Thursday Iran must abide by assurances it had given that the Grace 1 tanker would not travel to Syria, and said it would not allow Iran or anyone to bypass European Union sanctions.
“We note the Government of Gibraltar has received assurances from Iran that the Grace 1 will not proceed to Syria. Iran must abide by the assurances they have provided,” a British foreign office spokesman said in a statement.
“We will not stand by and allow Iran – or anyone – to bypass vital EU sanctions on a regime that has deployed chemical weapons against its own people. 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.”
A spokesman for the Stena Impero tanker, seized by Iran last month, said the situation remained the same with the Stena Impero and that the company awaited further developments from the United Kingdom and Iran.
Earlier on Thursday, the Gibraltar government confirmed earlier media reports that the US Department of Justice had sought to extend the detention of the oil tanker Grace 1, prompting the Supreme Court in the territory to adjourn a scheduled decision on whether to release the ship until later in the day.
“The U.S. Department of Justice has applied to seize the Grace 1 on a number of allegations, which are now being considered,” the Gibraltar government said in a statement, adding that the matter would be reviewed by the court at 4 p.m. local time.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement that the “investigations conducted around the Grace 1 are a matter for the government of Gibraltar” and that it could not comment further as the investigation was ongoing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office said that Iran was discussed during the UK leader’s meeting with Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton earlier in the week, though no details were released on the talks.
While there was no immediate reaction from Tehran, the United States move likely will further stir tensions in the Persian Gulf.
The detention of the Grace 1 saw Iran seize the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by Iran. Analysts had hoped the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar would see the Stena Impero similarly released.
In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the US has blamed on Iran and the downing of a US surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran has denied being behind the tanker attacks. Iran also has seized other oil tankers.
The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil, was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria, and its seizure deepened international tensions in the Persian Gulf. Iran called the seizure by Gibraltar an “act of piracy.”
The Gibraltar government said it was seeking to “de-escalate” the situation over the Grace 1.
Signaling preparations for the expected release of the ship, the captain, an Indian national, and three officers of the Grace 1 had been released from detention, a Gibraltar government spokesman told The Associated Press. The spokesman was not authorized to be identified by name in the media.
The whereabouts of the released crew, none of whom are Iranian, were not immediately known. The crew of the Grace 1 includes sailors from India, Pakistan and Ukraine, according to Iranian state television.
As speculation mounted over the Grace 1’s release, a lawyer representing the territory’s General Attorney Michael Llamas announced during a Thursday morning hearing at the Gibraltar Supreme Court that the US had moved at the eleventh hour.
Speaking in court, Chief Justice Anthony Dudley said that were it not for the U.S. move, “the ship would have sailed,” the Gibraltar Chronicle reported.
This is the second time the Trump administration has moved to seize a ship in recent months. In May, the Justice Department announced that it had seized a North Korean cargo ship used to supply coal to the isolated nation in violation of international sanctions.
At the time, US officials said the ship, the Wise Honest, was one of North Korea’s largest bulk carriers and for several years had been used to deliver Russian coal to North Korea.
Tensions have escalated in the region since President Donald Trump over a year ago unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The decision 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.
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