U.K. Says Iran's Supertanker Is Free To Go Even As The U.S. Tries To Keep It Impounded

Officials in Gibraltar are still considering the American request to take custody of the ship and Iran is still holding a British-flagged tanker.

AP

U.K. authorities in Gibraltar have released the Iranian supertanker Grace 1, after receiving assurances that the ship's final destination was not actually an oil refinery in Syria that is under European Union sanctions. This decision comes despite the United States making a bid to take over the case and keep the ship detained and as Iran continues to hold the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, which Tehran had seized in a tit-for-tat response nearly four weeks ago.

Security forces in Gibraltar, along with Royal Marines, stormed the Grace 1 on July 4, 2019, over suspected sanctions violations. Iran has denied from the beginning that the tanker was bound for Syria, but has never publicly offered an alternative destination. Authorities in Tehran had been quick to denounce the British decision to seize the ship and vowed to detain a British-flagged vessel in response, a threat the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) made good on July 19, 2019, when its personnel boarded the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz. Both sides had publicly ruled out a ship swap in the past.

"There are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1," Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement on Aug. 15, 2019. "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."

Negotiations between the United Kingdom and Iran over the ship had been underway for weeks. In July, then-U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt had publicly said that the ship could be free to go if the Iranians could provide clear and compelling evidence that it was not headed to Syria.

On Aug. 14, 2019, it appeared that these discussions were coming close to reaching a conclusion. "The vessel was seized based on false allegations," Jalil Eslami, the deputy head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization, had told state-run media outlet IRNA. "We hope the release will take place soon."

It remains unclear what evidence Iran provided to Gibraltar's Supreme Court that led to the decision to release the ship. U.K. authorities have maintained from the start that it was the territory's government that initiated the tanker's seizure in the first place.

However, when and if Grace 1 actually heads back to sea remains to be seen. Authorities in Gibraltar confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice had made a formal request to take custody of the tanker over a number of unspecified allegations. Chief Minister Picardo said the territory was still considering that request through a separate legal process, despite saying that the Iranian ship was, at least for now, free to go.

Jonathan Brady/PA Wire via AP Images

Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in London in April 2019.

It's unclear what the U.S. government's arguments for taking over Grace 1 might be. The United States has put near-total unilateral sanctions on Iran's oil industry, with secondary sanctions hitting any countries that continue to buy that oil, but it's unclear what authority there is to then claim the vessel and its cargo in transit. Again, it's important to note that Gibraltar initially detained the ship because it was allegedly heading to the Baniyas Refinery in Syria, which is the target of European Union sanctions. The U.K. insists that the seizure was not made based on a request from the United States or based on any U.S. sanctions.

Still, the U.S. Department of Justice did successfully take custody of the North Korean-flagged M/V Wise Honest in April 2019 over sanctions violations. This was the first time the United States had ever done this with regards to North Korea and American officials may now be looking to use whatever legal arguments it made there to take control of the Grace 1.

AP

The North Korean-flagged M/V Wise Honest, which is now in US government custody.

How Grace 1's release and potential re-impoundment might impact the case of the Stena Impero is unclear. While the United Kingdom and Iran have repeatedly ruled out swapping the ships, letting the Iranian tanker might help de-escalate tensions. Agreeing to transfer to the ship to U.S. government custody, especially after the U.K. government recently agreed to join a new American-backed maritime security mission focused on Iran in and around the Strait of Hormuz, could inflame the situation all over again.

If the United States succeeds in its attempt to take control of Grace 1, it would almost certainly lead to a new surge in tensions between Washington and Tehran, as well. Since May 2019, the two countries have taken increasingly hardline stances toward each other, reaching a climax in June 2019 when the IRGC shot down a U.S. Navy drone over the Gulf of Oman, which, in turn, almost led to U.S. military strikes on Iran. 

The day before the IRGC seized the Stena Impero, it also harassed a convoy of U.S. Navy ships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz, which led Marines on board the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer to bring down an Iranian drone with an electronic warfare attack. For months now, the U.S. military has been steadily deploying additional forces to the region, or speeding up planning deployments, including fighter jets and bombers, Navy ships, and more. The United States has already been conducting its own unilateral maritime patrols aimed at deterring Iranian activities, including flights involving U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles armed with cluster munitions.

USAF

US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles armed with cluster munitions and other ordnance conduct a patrol over the Persian Gulf in June 2019.

The Iranians have also seized two other tankers in the past few months, one before and one after the Stena Impero incident. It continues to hold the Panama-flagged Riah and an unnamed Iraqi-flagged tanker over suspected fuel smuggling.

At the same time, the United States has had difficulty in getting its proposed multi-national maritime security mission off the ground, despite seeking to "internationalize" it and going so far as to ask global competitor China to participate. There are also reports that the U.S. government has been conducting back-channel negotiations with Iran through a number of different intermediaries to try and further de-escalate the situation, though the United States and Iran have denied this

Grace 1 may prove to be a valuable window into the state U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as those between the United States and its allies regarding policies toward Tehran. If the tanker does continue on its way, it will interesting to see were it ultimately offloads its cargo if it doesn't actually head to Syria.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com