Iranian tanker set to leave Gibraltar soon despite US pressure

US Justice Department has issued a warrant for seizure of Grace 1, claiming an alleged scheme to support Syria with oil

The Grace 1 supertanker stands off the coast of the British territory of Gibraltar, Aug. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Marcos Moreno)
The Grace 1 supertanker stands off the coast of the British territory of Gibraltar, Aug. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Marcos Moreno)

The shipping agent for an Iranian supertanker caught in a diplomatic standoff said the vessel is ready to depart Gibraltar in “24 to 48 hours,” despite a last-minute effort by the United States to seize it again.

Richard de la Rosa, managing director of Astralship, said Saturday that logistical preparations are underway and that a new crew of Indian and Ukrainian nationals is expected to take command of the Grace 1, which is carrying 2.1 million tons of Iranian oil.

Calls to Gibraltar’s Supreme Court and government have not been answered.

The US Justice Department issued a warrant Friday for the seizure of the Grace 1, one day after a Gibraltar judge allowed for its release and six weeks after it was detained on suspicion of violating international sanctions on Syria, the alleged planned recipient of the crude oil it was carrying.

The Justice Department alleged the ship was part of a scheme “to unlawfully access the US financial system to support illicit shipments to Syria from Iran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” which the US has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

The warrant said the vessel and all the oil aboard were subject to forfeiture based on violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, as well as bank fraud, money laundering, and terrorism statutes.

It also ordered the seizure of $995,000 in an account at an unnamed US bank associated with Paradise Global Trading LLC, which it called a shell company associated with businesses that act for the Revolutionary Guards.

On Thursday, a Gibraltar judge ordered the release of the Grace 1, rejecting the  last-minute legal move by Washington demanding that the ship remain detained.

The July 4 seizure came amid surging tensions in the Gulf after several alleged Iranian attacks on smaller tankers.

The US — citing Tehran’s threat to American allies — expanded its military presence in the region with a new aircraft carrier task force, missile batteries and strategic bombers.

A US Marine observes Iranian fast attack craft from the USS John P. Murtha during a Strait of Hormuz transit, July 18, 2019. (US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert)

Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since US President Donald Trump withdrew last year from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran, reimposing crippling unilateral sanctions.

In the wake of Grace 1’s detention, on July 19 Iran seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran said the ship was in violation of “international maritime rules,” but the move was widely seen as retaliation for the Grace 1.

Thursday’s ruling for the release of the Grace 1 came after Gibraltar’s government said it had received written assurances from Iran that the ship would not be headed for countries “subject to European Union sanctions.”

“We have deprived the Assad regime in Syria of more than $140 million worth of crude oil,” Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo said.

The US-issued seizure warrant would have required Britain to decide whether to act again to detain the vessel.

Earlier Friday, Iranian officials said the tanker was preparing to set sail under an Iranian flag and would be renamed the Adrian Darya for the voyage.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the US attempt at “piracy” had failed, saying it showed Washington’s “contempt for the law.”

On Thursday the US State Department threatened to issue a visa ban on anyone working on the ship.

Iran denied Friday it had made any promises about the ship’s destination to secure the release, saying Gibraltar was only seeking to “save face.”

“Iran has given no assurances over the Grace 1 not going to Syria to secure its release,” a state media website quoted foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying.

“The tanker’s destination was not Syria… and even if it was, it did not concern anyone else.”

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