Gibraltar defies US, releases seized Iranian tanker Grace 1

The seized oil tanker at the center of a standoff between the UK and Iran is now free to set sail

Gibraltar announced it is releasing an Iranian oil tanker it detained in July despite an eleventh-hour efforts by the United States to block the move to release it. Gibraltar’s chief minister said Thursday that the release of the vessel, Grace 1, was approved after receiving written assurances from Tehran the ship would not be used to violate sanctions.

“In light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 in order to ensure compliance with the EU Sanctions Regulation,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement.

“The Grace 1 is therefore now released from detention under the Sanctions Act by operation of law as confirmed this afternoon by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” he added.

Authorities in Gibraltar revealed hours earlier that the Justice Department had applied to seize the tanker. The department told The Hill on Thursday morning it did not have any comment regarding its request. In his statement, Picardo described the US effort as separate from Thursday’s decision.

“Separately, the United States Department of Justice has requested that a new legal procedure for the detention of the vessel should be commenced,” he said. “That is a matter for our independent Mutual Legal Assistance authorities who will make an objective, legal determination of that request for separate proceedings.”

Denouncing the US move, Tehran's ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, said the Grace 1 would leave Gibraltar soon.

"The US in a last minute attempt made a futile effort to block the release of the oil tanker and were faced with humiliating defeat. With recent attempts, all necessary preparations and technical issues to release the tanker to an open sea have been arranged and the ship will soon leave Gibraltar," he wrote on Twitter, in Farsi.

The detention of the Grace 1 in early July was a key flashpoint in escalating tensions with Iran. The Iranian-flagged tanker was detained off the coast of the British territory of Gibraltar over allegations it was smuggling oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Iran slammed the detention as an act of “piracy” and accused Britain of acting on behalf of the United States.

A couple weeks later, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz in what was widely seen as retaliation for the Grace 1. The ship seizures added to already heightened tensions stemming from the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions on Iran and the country's decision to breech two key limits of the 2015 nuclear deal. 

The back-and-forth between the United States and Iran over the past few months has included Tehran shooting down a US surveillance drone, President Trump coming within minutes of launching a military strike on Iran, the US military downing an Iranian drone and attacks on oil tankers near the Gulf that the United States has blamed on Iran.

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