Iranian tanker to leave Gibraltar soon despite US pressure

Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 sits anchored awaiting a court ruling on whether it can be freed after it was seized in July by British Royal Marines off the coast of the UK exclave of Gibraltar

Gibraltar Says it Will Assess Any US Attempt to Stop Iranian Tanker's Departure After its Release REUTERS Jon Nazca

Authorities in Gibraltar - with the backing of the British - had said the vessel was heading for Syria in breach of European Union sanctions barring the sale of oil to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The US Justice Department issued a warrant Friday for the seizure of the Grace 1, one day after a Gibraltar judge allowed for its release and six weeks after it was detained on suspicion of violating global sanctions on Syria, the alleged planned recipient of the crude oil it was carrying.

However, Mr. Picardo said on Thursday he had agreed to release the ship after receiving written assurances that the cargo would not go to Syria. In response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador to Tehran.

The developments come against the backdrop of a unsafe spike in tensions with Tehran, as Washington slapped crippling sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation after ditching the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, commonly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, last year, stopping billions of dollars in business deals and largely halting the sale of Iranian crude oil internationally.

The Justice Department has unsealed a warrant ordering the seizure and forfeiture of the Iranian tanker, all of the oil it is carrying, as well as $995,000.

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The captors of the vessel "raised the issue of commitment in a bid to make up for their humiliation caused by this illegal act and piracy", Abbas Mousavi said, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

The UK government has said it is up to Gibraltar to decide what to do and the court said it was seeking to "de-escalate" the situation with Iran.

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

The authorities in Gibraltar on Thursday released the Iranian vessel, Grace 1 (now known as Adrian Darya), defying a U.S. request hours earlier to seize the ship.

"She is able to leave as soon as she organizes the logistics necessary in order to sail a ship of that size wherever it is going next", Fabian Picardo told the BBC. "This is a matter now exclusively for the ship agents and ship owners". It could also provoke further tensions between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf, where USA and British warships have embarked on patrols to protect commercial shipping.

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Washington had attempted to withhold the vessel on the basis that it allegedly had ties to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif slammed the USA attempt to seize Grace 1 just hours before Gibraltar was poised to set it free as piracy. The companies included the ship's Singapore-based owner, identified only as Company 1, and others in the United Arab Emirates, St Kitts, Nevada, Oman and Switzerland.

Trump has said such a deal should cover not just Iran's nuclear program but also its activities related to ballistic missiles and support for Islamist militant groups hostile toward the USA and US allies.

In a statement, the State Department accused the Grace 1 of assisting Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in evading US sanctions on oil exports from the country.

After Thursday's court ruling, the US State Department threatened a visa ban on the crew, warning that members of any vessels assisting Iran's Revolutionary Guards - considered a terrorist group by Washington - in transporting oil risked being ineligible for admission to the United States.

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