Gibraltar’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday to release an Iranian supertanker seized last month on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, despite a last-minute US request to detain the vessel.
Chief Justice Anthony Dudley said that since Iran had guaranteed in writing that the Grace 1 “was never destined to an EU sanctioned entity… there are no longer reasonable grounds to suspect that the detention of the vessel is required.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Gibraltar government confirmed media reports that the US Justice Department sought to extend the Grace 1’s detention, prompting the court to adjourn a hearing to discuss the request from Washington.
But the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported that there was no US application before the court when the hearing was held, quoting Dudley. That allowed the ship to be freed.
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the US could still begin a new legal procedure for seizing the Grace 1, but that provisions under the European Union’s sanctions regulations were ending Thursday.
The Grace 1, carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude, was seized last month in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The vessel was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria, and its seizure deepened tensions in the Persian Gulf. Iran called the seizure by Gibraltar an “act of piracy.”
Shortly after the detention of the Grace 1, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had hoped the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar would see the Stena Impero similarly released.
In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the US has blamed on Iran and the downing of a US surveillance drone by Iranian forces. Iran has denied being behind the tanker attacks, though the country has also seized other oil tankers.
The Gibraltar government had said it was seeking to “de-escalate” the situation over the Grace 1.
Signaling preparations for the expected release of the ship, the captain, an Indian national, and three officers of the Grace 1 were released from detention Thursday, the government said.
Tensions have escalated in the Persian Gulf region since US President Donald Trump over a year ago unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The decision stopped billions of dollars’ worth of business deals, largely halted the sale of Iran’s crude oil internationally and sharply depreciated Iran’s currency, the rial.
In recent weeks, Iran has begun to step away from the nuclear deal by increasing its production and enrichment of uranium. It has threatened to take further steps in early September if Europe can’t help it sell its oil abroad.
The decision to release the Grace 1 despite the American request was hailed by Iran’s foreign minister, who said the US attempt at “piracy” had failed.
“Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism — including depriving cancer patients of medicine — the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas,” Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.
“This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin’s contempt for the law.”
Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, tweeted the US was “desperately” trying to block the release of the Grace 1, but had faced a “humiliating defeat.”
Baeidinejad said the tanker would be leaving Gibraltar soon.