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US makes legal bid to seize Iranian tanker held by Gibraltar

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The US has made a last-minute legal bid to seize an Iranian tanker held by Gibraltar just as a court in the British overseas territory was set to rule on whether the vessel should be released.

The intervention by the US Department of Justice caused Gibraltar’s Supreme court to delay its judgment on the fate of the Grace 1 until the afternoon, the Gibraltar government said.

Joseph Triay, a lawyer for the Gibraltar government, told the court that local authorities had not intended to seek the further detention of the vessel, according to local press reports. “This application was to have taken a very different turn,” he was quoted as saying by the Gibraltar Chronicle, referring to the US intervention.

The supertanker is at the centre of a stand-off between the Islamic republic and Britain. It has been detained in Gibraltar since British commandos and local police apprehended it on July 4 after it was suspected to be delivering 2m barrels of Iranian crude to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

A senior US official said: “For us it makes strategic sense, because it denies the Iranian regime the revenues it uses to fuel its militant proxies in the region and it also denies the [Syrian] regime the revenue it’s using to fuel attacks against its own people.”

Ahead of the hearing on Thursday afternoon, Iranian officials had said they expected the Grace 1 to be released, which would help ease tensions between the Islamic republic and the west. Gibraltar media reported that the court had already released the ship’s four man crew.

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It was not immediately clear on what legal basis the US justice department made its application to the court.

Washington has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran since President Donald Trump last year unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers. But the UK, which continues to support the nuclear agreement, has insisted its decision to detain the Grace 1 was in no way related to the US measures and based solely on the belief that the vessel was violating sanctions.

The UK’s decision to detain the vessel raised tensions between Iran and the west and heightened concerns about maritime security in the oil-rich Gulf. Tehran accused Britain of committing an act of “piracy” and then seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, and its 23-man crew in the Strait of Hormuz in an act widely regarded as retaliation.

British officials had ruled out any barter for the ships, insisting that the two cases are distinct.

It said the Grace 1’s fate would be determined by the legal process in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory. But the assumption in London has been that Iran would be likely to release the Stena Impero once the dispute over the Grace 1 was resolved.

Tehran said it detained the Stena Impero because it violated international maritime regulations by causing pollution in the Strait of Hormuz, switching off tracking devices to avoid Iranian forces and colliding with a fishing boat. The UK has accused Iran of acting unlawfully.

Some Iranian officials have admitted that the Stena Impero’s detention was a retaliatory act and have hinted that it would be released once the Grace 1 was freed.

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The UK had previously said it would facilitate the release of the vessel if it had assurances from Iran that the tanker would not go to Syria. Tehran has always denied that the ship was delivering oil to the country.

The Islamic republic has been a staunch supporter of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, as his regime has fought an eight-year civil war. Tehran normally ships oil to Syria through the Suez Canal, using smaller vessels than the Grace 1.

The seizure of the Stena Impero caused the UK to deploy a second warship to the region last month to provide additional security for British-flagged ships. Its navy has also been escorting vessels through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes.

The impasse has created friction between Britain and Iran, and complicated the UK’s efforts to work with France and Germany to save the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers.

The UK has insisted it is committed to the atomic agreement and does not support the US sanctions, but it has joined Washington in criticising Tehran’s behaviour.

Iran deemed the seizure of the Grace 1 a hostile act and interpreted it as a sign that the UK was aligning itself more closely with the Trump administration’s position. Britain this month said it would join a US-led initiative to protect maritime shipping in the Gulf.

Gibraltar’s Supreme Court last month granted the British overseas territory’s authorities the power to detain the Grace 1 for 30 days, which expires on Saturday. The hearing on Thursday was to have decided whether that is extended.

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Via Financial Times

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