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World & Nation

Iran oil tanker cleared to leave Gibraltar soon despite U.S. pressure

Grace 1 supertanker
A British patrol vessel alongside the supertanker Grace 1, which is carrying Iranian oil, in the British territory of Gibraltar on July 4.
(Marcos Moreno / Associated Press)

The shipping agent for a supertanker that is carrying Iranian oil and got caught in a diplomatic standoff says the vessel is ready to depart Gibraltar on Sunday or Monday, as the U.S. made a last-minute effort to seize it again.

The head of the company that processes paperwork and procurement for the Grace 1 oil tanker in the British overseas territory said the vessel could be sailing away in the next “24 to 48 hours,” once new crews dispatched to the territory take over command of the ship.

“The vessel is ongoing some logistical changes and requirements that have delayed the departure,” Astralship managing director Richard De la Rosa told the Associated Press.

De la Rosa’s comments came a day after the U.S. obtained a warrant to seize the vessel over violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran. It was unclear if that could happen before the ship departs since Gibraltar officials have said that any request to seize the vessel would have to make its way through the territory’s courts.

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He said the new crews were Indian and Ukrainian nationals hired by the Indian managers of the ship and that his company had not been informed about the supertanker’s next destination.

The tanker, which carries 2.1 million tons of Iranian light crude oil, had been detained on July 4 in Gibraltar for allegedly attempting to breach European Union sanctions on Syria. The seizure fueled tension between London and Tehran, which on July 20 seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in apparent retaliation.

Analysts had said the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar could be followed Iran’s release of the British ship Stena Impero.

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But late on Friday, a day after the tanker carrying Iranian oil was released, the U.S. obtained a warrant to seize the vessel over violations of U.S. sanctions, money laundering and terrorism statutes. Washington is seeking to take control of the oil tanker, all of the petroleum aboard and $995,000, unsealed court documents showed.

The latest turn of events come as tensions continue to rise in the Persian Gulf since President Trump last year unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and other world powers. In recent weeks, oil tankers in the region have been the subject of attacks and seizures, stirring up a bitter diplomatic row.

The Gibraltar Supreme Court didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on whether the U.S. request had been filed there. Britain’s Foreign Office deferred questions to the government of Gibraltar, but calls and emails to its offices went unanswered.

Messages left with the U.S. Embassy in London were not immediately returned.

Britain mobilized a diplomatic broadside — but no immediate military action — against Iran on Saturday in retaliation for its seizure of the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker, in the Strait of Hormuz.

The chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, had warned the U.S. that a new legal case would need to be examined by the territory’s courts following the end of the tanker’s detention this week. Picardo said he had been assured in writing by the Iranian government that the tanker wouldn’t unload its cargo in Syria.

Richard Wilkinson, a lawyer representing three crew members of the Grace 1, including its Indian captain, said he was “not aware of any reason why the ship won’t sail on Sunday, as it is to be planned.”

“As far as Europe is concerned, and it’s common ground, there’s been no criticism or complaints that this vessel is carrying oil from Iran, the only problem from the European point of view was the destination of the vessel and that has been sorted,” Wilkinson said.

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He also said that he doubted that the U.S. had any jurisdiction to enforce its own sanctions in Gibraltar, where he saw “little political will” to re-seize the tanker.

Authorities in Gibraltar said they intercepted an Iranian supertanker Thursday that was believed to be breaching European Union sanctions by carrying a shipment of Tehran’s crude oil to war-ravaged Syria.

The time window for a new seizure was also rapidly closing, as workers were seen by an AP crew hanging on a ladder to repaint the vessel’s bow with the name “Adrian Darya 1" over the place where “Grace 1" had already been blackened out.

The ship was reportedly no longer sailing under a Panamanian flag, but no signs of a new one could be seen on Saturday.

The shipping agent, De la Rosa, said that “if the Americans came forth with some kind of request or specific order, it would have to be looked into by the judges, but I don’t think that’s materialized.”


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