Gibraltar has released an impounded Iranian oil tanker in defiance of a last-ditch legal attempt by the US to block its release today.
The Grace 1, which was seized by the Royal Marines last month, was to be released earlier on Thursday before an eleventh hour intervention by the US Department of Justice.
But Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said this afternoon he was happy for the ship to be liberated on written assurances from Tehran that it would not travel to Syria.
A US official revealed today Washington’s interest had been in disrupting both Iran and Syria in ensuring the oil tanker remained anchored.
Britain impounded the vessel on July 4 on the grounds it was in breach of EU sanctions barring Iran from selling oil to Syria.
Tehran retaliated by accusing London of acting as Washington’s puppet and the Iranian National Guard captured the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.
Today’s dramatic to-and-fro came as security experts speculated the Grace 1’s release could pave the way to an exchange with the British-flagged tanker.
The two shackled tankers are seen as pawns in Iran’s battle against the West, with their fate tangled in the diplomatic differences between the EU’s big powers and the United States.
The Iranian oil supertanker Grace 1 intercepted by British Royal Marines anchored off the coast of Gibraltar today
Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 sits anchored in the fog today after it was seized in July by British Royal Marines
Royal Marines from 42 Commando are pictured ‘fast-roping’ from a Wildcat helicopter (left) on to the supertanker Grace 1 as they intercepted it near Gibraltar in early July
The British-flagged Stena Impero was surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces and seized in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19, while the Liberian-flagged Mesdar oil tanker, managed by Norbulk Shipping UK, veered off course towards the Iranian coast after it was boarded by armed guards on the same day
Earlier today the Supreme Court of Gibraltar was adjourned after the US made a ‘number of allegations’ and sought ‘mutual legal assistance.’
But Chief Justice Anthony Dudley said this afternoon: ‘That’s not before me,’ in reference to those allegations. ‘There are no applications in relation to the US letters of request [for mutual legal assistance].’
Earlier today the Gibraltar government revealed: ‘The U.S. Department of Justice has applied to seize the Grace 1 on a number of allegations which are now being considered.’
It was not immediately clear on what legal grounds the US had tried to block the release of Grace 1 and the Department of Justice declined to comment.
A US official told the Guardian today: ‘It’s both an Iranian regime oil export and, in the judgment of HMG [the UK government], it’s an Assad regime oil import…
‘We have an interest in the disruption of both of those, both for our overarching policy and our Syria policy.’
The court was told the Americans were asking for mutual legal assistance, the Gibraltar Chronicle reported.
The tanker’s captain and three officers were released from custody today and the application of the Attorney General’s lawyer had been for no further detention.
Joseph Triay, for Attorney General Michael Llamas QC, told the court: ‘This application was to have taken a very different turn. It was to have been an application for no further order of detention.’
The UK’s Foreign Office said they could not comment on the US court intervention and that it was a matter for the Supreme Court of Gibraltar.
European countries including Britain strongly disagreed with Washington’s decision last year to abandon an international agreement that guaranteed Iran access to trade in return for curbs to its nuclear program.
Washington has imposed sanctions on Iran with the aim of halting its oil exports altogether. European countries have lifted sanctions against Iran itself but still have a ban on selling oil to Syria, in place since 2011.
Gibraltar denies that it was ordered to detain the Grace 1, which was carrying up to 2.1 million barrels of oil, but several diplomatic sources have said the US asked the UK to seize the vessel.
Britain, which has insisted its Iran policy will not change under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has repeatedly indicated it wants a compromise over the tanker.
Tehran’s propaganda machine mocked Mr Johnson when he took office last month, with cartoons featuring the new PM as President Donald Trump’s butler.
Iranian media mocked Boris Johnson as Donald Trump’s butler when he took office last month, saying that his premiership would be short-lived
Two members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inspect the captured British tanker last month
Armed guardsman is seen patrolling along the deck of the Imepero as Tehran taunted Britain last month
Britain has announced plans to join a US-led maritime security mission in the Gulf and on Monday a Royal Navy frigate, the HMS Kent, to relieve the HMS Duncan.
The HMS Duncan and HMS Montrose had earlier been dispatched during the developing crisis to protect British vessels in the Gulf.
A Royal Navy spokesman on Monday: ‘Type 23 frigate HMS Kent will relieve HMS Duncan of her duties in the Gulf and is scheduled to work alongside US partners as part of the newly-formed international maritime security construct.
‘She will be focused on providing regional maritime security, including counter-terrorism and anti-smuggling activities.
‘She will also work alongside HMS Montrose to escort British-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.’
The Type 23 frigate HMS Kent (pictured with its specifications) was dispatched from Portsmouth on Monday to relieve the HMS Duncan
The Royal Navy’s most modern warship was dispatched the the Persian Gulf last month to protect British-flagged oil tankers from Iran
Iranian navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi repeated Iran’s longstanding demand that Western navies leave the Gulf, which Iran says should be patrolled only by the countries of the region, ISNA news agency reported on Thursday.
‘The enemies of the region, America, England and the Zionist regime and their allies, should know that the time of parading, loitering and putting on a hypocritical show in the Persian Gulf region and the sea of Oman is over, Khanzadi said, according to ISNA.
‘The enemies must leave the region as quickly as possible.’