Last-minute US plea stands in way of Gibraltar release of Iranian oil tanker

By bne IntelliNews August 15, 2019

Gibraltar on August 15 said it was set to free an Iranian oil tanker seized by UK Royal Marines early last month on suspicion of Syria sanctions-busting. However, there is a chance the decision could still be overturned by a last-minute plea submitted by US authorities.

The UK territory said it had received written assurances from Iran that the ship, the Grace 1, would not discharge its $140m cargo of Iranian oil in Syria, which would be in breach of an EU embargo on the war-torn country. A couple of weeks after the Iranian tanker was grabbed, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Gulf. There has been speculation of a swap if the Grace 1 is freed.

The affair has placed the UK in an awkward position. On the one hand, its government is on record as opposed to the crushing US sanctions regime Washington has directed at Iran in an attempt at forcing Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal to bring in tighter curbs against the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and cut off backing from Tehran for various militias in the Middle East that are variously enemies of Israel and Arab nations allied with the US. But on the other hand, the UK is under pressure to more closely align with US foreign policy in its bid to secure allies that will ease its post-Brexit existence. Even though the UK, like Germany, France, China and Russia remain signed up to the nuclear accord, the Iranians accused the British of doing the bidding of the US by capturing the Grace 1. London says it did no such thing, but simply acted to prevent a breach of EU sanctions. Interestingly, however, Brussels has remained silent on the matter.

In deciding to free the Grace 1, Gibraltar's chief justice, Anthony Dudley, said no US application was currently before the court. An independent legal body would be charged with making a determination on the US request for the tanker to be further detained, Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said Iran must abide by assurances it had given that the Grace 1 would not proceed to Syria, a "regime that has deployed chemical weapons against its own people".

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the US request to Gibraltar on Twitter, writing: “Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism—including depriving cancer patients of medicine [through sanctions]— the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas. This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin's contempt for the law.”

Zarif has also previously hit out at a UK plan to join the US in providing naval escorts for tankers transiting the Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Sea of Oman. Previously, the UK was pushing for a solely European escort mission to be arranged. That plan changed when Boris Johnson became UK PM in July. Germany has refused to join the British-American maritime security initiative, saying Iran policy efforts need to be further concentrated on diplomacy.

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