Gibraltar to release oil tanker at centre of Iran row pending challenge

Territory says Tehran has promised oil is not for Syria – but US to contest decision

Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 sits anchored after it was seized in July by British Royal Marines in the strait of Gibraltar.
The Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 at anchor after it was seized by British Royal Marines in the strait of Gibraltar in July. Photograph: Jon Nazca/Reuters

An oil tanker at the centre of a six-week diplomatic row between Britain and Iran is to be released from Gibraltar after Tehran promised that its cargo worth $140m would no longer be transported to Syria.

The territory’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, said he had agreed to let the vessel go after he had received a written assurance from Iran, but admitted his decision could yet be overturned by a surprise last minute US legal challenge.

Iran had promised that the final destination of the tanker Grace 1 “would not be an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions” such as Syria, Picardo said in a statement. That meant there were “no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention”, he added.

Royal Marines seized the vessel off the shores of Gibraltar on 4 July. A court in the territory endorsed his decision to release the vessel, which is carrying 2.1m barrels of Iranian oil worth £116m.

Tensions flared after the incident, with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero a fortnight later, and Britain sending out a second warship to the Gulf to offer greater protection to merchant shipping.

Timeline

Recent tensions in the Gulf

Tensions between the US and Iran have soared, with Washington dispatching warships to the Gulf, and Tehran resuming higher uranium enrichment.

The UAE says four commercial ships off its eastern coast 'were subjected to sabotage operations'.

Yemen's Houthi rebels launch a drone attack on Saudi Arabia, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service.

Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the drone attack on its pipeline.

A rocket lands near the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, without harming anyone. It's not clear who is behind the attack, but after the initial reports, Donald Trump tweets: 'If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!'

Senior Pentagon officer Vice-admiral Michael Gilday says the US has a high degree of confidence that Iran's Revolutionary Guards were responsible for the explosions on the four tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Saudi Arabia says 26 people were wounded in an attack by Yemen's Houthi rebels on an airport in the kingdom's south-western town of Abha.

Two oil tankers near the strategic strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked in an assault that left one ablaze and adrift. 44 sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the US navy assisted.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they have shot down what they called a US 'spy' drone they claim was flying in in the country’s airspace. The US military confirm one of its drones has been taken down, but say it was in international airspace.  

Donald Trump reportedly gives approval for the US military to launch strikes on Iran in retaliation for the loss of the drone, before pulling back at the last minute.

The Iranian and US presidents trade insults, with Hassan Rouhani suggesting that Donald Trump suffered from a “mental disorder” and Trump once more threatening Iran with “obliteration”.

Iran summons UK ambassador over an incident off Gibraltar as Royal Marines seize a tanker the UK suspects of carrying oil to Syria.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the body tasked with verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, verifies that Tehran has breached the agreed 3.67% limit for enriched uranium.

The UK government says three Iranian boats were warned off by the frigate HMS Montrose after Iranian boats 'attempted to impede' a British oil tanker in strait of Hormuz. Tehran denies involvement.

In a major escalation, Iran seizes the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker, off its coast. Iranian officials later make it clear that the capture was in retaliation for the capture of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 earlier in July.

Despite US attempts in the courts to prevent it, Gibraltar says it will free oil tanker at centre of the Iran row.

Picardo acknowledged that the US Department of Justice had indicated it was minded to challenge the decision and said mutual legal assistance authorities would make “an objective, legal determination of that request”.

Trump administration officials had earlier told the Guardian the seizure request was consistent with wider efforts to intensify the effects of western economic sanctions on Iran as well as Syria.

A US official said the tanker case was significant because it was both an Iranian oil export and, in the judgment of the UK government, a Syrian oil import. “We have an interest in the disruption of both of those, both for our overarching Iran policy and our Syria policy,” the official said.

Gibraltar detained the Grace 1 because it was believed to be heading to Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s government has been subject to EU sanctions since the early stages of the country’s civil war. The EU does not sanction Iranian oil exports.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, accused the US of “having failed to accomplish its objectives through its economic terrorism”. It had “attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas”, he said.

British officials said they were notified in advance by the US of the Department of Justice’s intention to challenge the release of the tanker, but they would not spell out when that had occurred.

It is not clear whether the US national security adviser, John Bolton, raised the subject when he visited London on Monday and Tuesday and met the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and other cabinet ministers.

Bolton had previously been following the topic closely. The senior official had hailed the seizure of the Grace 1 as “excellent news” when it originally took place, and praised the UK for agreeing to work with the US to help safeguard merchant shipping in the Gulf earlier this month.

The Foreign Office said it noted the assurances given by Iran that the Grace 1 would not proceed to Syria. “Iran must abide by the assurances they have provided. We will not stand by and allow Iran, or anyone, to bypass vital EU sanctions on a regime that has deployed chemical weapons against its own people,” a spokesperson said.

Map

Relations between Iran and the west have been deteriorating since Washington pulled out of an international agreement curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme and reimposed economic sanctions.

The UK, France and Germany have been trying to keep the deal alive, but under the pressure of economic sanctions, Iran has been gradually pursuing a policy of defiance, sabotaging shipping in the Gulf and increasing the enrichment levels of its uranium stockpiles in breach of the treaty.

During his trip to the UK, Bolton made further diplomatic efforts to steer a post-Brexit UK further away from Europe on a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal and the role of the Chinese technology firm Huawei.

Bolton is hoping that a Johnson administration will gradually adopt a foreign policy on Iran more independent of its two former EU partners Germany and France after Brexit, and closer to the policy of maximum economic pressure on Tehran imposed by Donald Trump.