Gibraltar releases Iran supertanker that US sought to seize
MADRID — Gibraltar on Thursday allowed a detained Iranian supertanker to leave the British overseas territory despite a last-minute U.S. attempt to seize the vessel, potentially defusing tensions between London and Tehran as a British-flagged tanker remains held by the Islamic Republic.
The release of the Grace 1 comes amid a growing confrontation between Iran and the West after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago.
In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. has blamed on Iran and the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran denied it was behind the tanker attacks, although it has seized other tankers.
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the U.S. was still on time to request a new legal procedure for seizing the Grace 1, but that provisions under the European Union's sanctions regulations were ending Thursday after the Iranian government assured him in writing that the ship will not send its 2.1 million barrels of crude to a sanctioned entity in Syria.
Reacting to the developments, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the U.S. of trying to "steal our property on the high seas."
"Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism — including depriving cancer patients of medicine — the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas," Zarif tweeted, calling the Trump administration's moves a "piracy attempt."
It was not clear whether the Grace 1 would sail away immediately; nor was it known what the Trump's administration strategy was. The U.S. Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
"This is an important material change in the destination of the vessel and the beneficiary of its cargo," Gibraltar's Picardo said in a statement, adding that the move ensured that the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad would be deprived of more than $140 million of crude oil.
Gibraltar said it had "solid documentary evidence" that the vessel was bound for Syria when it was detained on July 4, but that the political fallout had prompted talks with Iranian officials in London.
Picardo's office released copies of communications with the Syrian Embassy in the U.K. shortly after the British overseas territory's Supreme Court decision to release the tanker.
The court had delayed its decision after the Justice Department made a last-minute application to extend the detention of the oil tanker, the Gibraltar government had said earlier Thursday. But there was no U.S. application to the court when the hearing resumed in the afternoon, the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported, quoting the court's chief justice, Anthony Dudley.
Picardo said that any U.S. request to detain the Grace 1 would now to be examined under bilateral agreements and outside of the EU sanction mechanism.
The EU has endorsed U.N. sanctions against Syria and has imposed a broad range of its own restrictions against Assad's government and its supporters. The restrictions include an oil embargo, limits on certain type of investments and a freeze of Syria's central bank's assets in the EU, among others.
In May, it extended until mid-2020 travel bans and the freezing of assets of 269 individuals and 69 entities. Among them is listed the Banyas refinery where the Grace 1's cargo was allegedly headed on July 4 when it was seized in a British Royal Navy operation in the Strait of Gibraltar.