Gibraltar court to decide fate of seized Iranian tanker

Gibraltar authorities will also decide on the fate of four crew members of the Grace 1

A sailboat sails as a boat approaches to the boarding ladder of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 as it sits anchored after it was seized in July by British Royal Marines off the coast of the British Mediterranean territory on suspicion of violating sanctions against Syria, in the Strait of Gibraltar, southern Spain August 14, 2019.Image Credit: REUTERS

Gibraltar: Gibraltar’s Supreme Court was to decide on Thursday whether an Iranian oil tanker seized last month near the tiny British territory can be held longer amid speculation that it might soon be released.

The Grace 1 supertanker, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil, was seized on July 4 by Gibraltar police and British special forces off the overseas British territory, provoking a diplomatic crisis between Tehran and London. It was suspected of carrying oil to war-torn Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

Iran, which has described Britain’s actions as “piracy”, seized a British tanker, the Stena Impero, on July 19 in the strategic Strait of Hormuz for breaking “international maritime rules”.

The Supreme Court hearing on the fate of the Grace 1 is set for 10:30 am (0830 GMT), with a decision expected to be announced later in the day. The current detention order on the vessel expires on Saturday.

There has been speculation in recent days that Gibraltar authorities will soon release the tanker after the deputy head of Iran’s port authority, Jalil Eslami, said Tuesday that Britain had shown an interest in overcoming the problem and documents had been exchanged.

“I hope this problem will be resolved in the near future,” he added in a report by state news agency IRNA.

The government of Gibraltar would neither confirm or deny the report.

“We continue to seek to de-escalate issues arising since the lawful detention of Grace 1,” a spokesman said.

Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham house in London, said Iran sees its seizure of the Stena Impero as “retaliation” for the British seizure of the Grace 1.

“It’s a tit-for-tat thing. If the Grace 1 gets released, and it would be if behind the scenes probably Iran made a commitment not to export that oil to Syria, and then it is likely that the Stena Impero will also be released,” she told AFP.

The capture of the tanker has heightened frictions just as European nations are scrambling to save a landmark nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic after the United States pulled out of it last year and started imposing sanctions on Iran.

Gibraltar authorities will also have to decide on the fate of four crew members of the Grace 1, including its captain, who were arrested shortly after the tanker was seized. All four are on police bail and have not been charged with any offence.

Gibraltar’s Supreme Court on July 19 extended its initial order authorising the detention of the Grace 1 for a further 30 days at the request of the attorney general.

Tanker seizures: what we know

The seizure is one of several in recent weeks that have ratcheted up tensions between Iran and its foe the United States and its allies.

Here’s what we know about the vessels involved:

Grace 1

Gibraltar police and customs officers aided by British Royal Marines intercepted the Grace 1 supertanker on July 4, as it passed through the strait between the territory on Spain’s southern tip and North Africa.

Officials in Gibraltar and the United States suspect the 330-metre (1,000 foot) Panama-flagged ship was destined for Syria, in breach of separate sets of EU and US sanctions.

The Indian captain of the vessel, which was carrying 2.1 million barrels of oil, later told the BBC a military helicopter landed on its deck before the Royal Marines boarded.

Iran has called the seizure of the tanker “maritime piracy” and warned at the time that it would not let its detention go unanswered.

The Islamic republic has not officially disclosed the tanker’s destination but it has repeatedly denied it was headed for Syria.

MT Riah

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said its forces detained a “foreign tanker” in Gulf waters on July 14 for allegedly smuggling contraband fuel.

The tanker was seized south of the Iranian island of Larak in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the Guards’ official website said.

“With a capacity of two million litres and 12 foreign crew on board, the vessel was en route to deliver contraband fuel received from Iranian boats to foreign ships,” it said.

TankerTrackers reported at the time that the Panamanian-flagged MT Riah, used in the strait for fuelling other vessels, had crossed into Iranian waters, and at that point its automatic identification system stopped sending signals.

Stena Impero

Revolutionary Guards surrounded the British-flagged Stena Impero with attack boats before rappelling onto the deck of the oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.

The 183-metre ship is impounded at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas for breaking “international maritime rules” – by allegedly failing to respond to distress calls and turning off its transponder after hitting a fishing boat.

Eighteen of the Swedish-owned tanker’s 23 crew are Indian, and the rest are from the Philippines, Latvia, and Russia.

The seizure came hours after a Gibraltar court said it would extend the detention of the Grace 1.

Britain quickly called on Iran to release the Stena Impero, saying it was seized illegally in an “utterly unacceptable” gambit.

But Tehran said the seizure was a legal measure and further investigations were required, denying it was a tit-for-tat move as London suggested.

Iran and Britain have both so far ruled out the possibility of an oil tanker swap deal.

Unknown vessel

Iran seized another ship on July 31 with seven foreign crew onboard, claiming it was smuggling around 700,000 litres of fuel.

The Guards said the ship was transferred to Bushehr province and handed over to authorities, claiming the vessel was en route to deliver fuel to Gulf Arab states.

The vessel’s identity and the nationality of its crew were not revealed at the time of its seizure.