GIBRALTAR • Gibraltar yesterday refused a US request to seize an Iranian tanker caught in a stand-off between Teheran and the West, as the stationary vessel raised an Iranian flag ahead of its expected departure from the British territory.
British Royal Marines seized the vessel in Gibraltar last month on suspicion that it was carrying oil to Syria, a close ally of Iran, in violation of European Union sanctions.
That detention ended last week, but last Friday a federal court in Washington issued a warrant for the seizure of the tanker, the oil it is carrying and nearly US$1 million (S$1.38 million).
Gibraltar said yesterday it could not comply with that request because it was bound by EU law.
"The EU sanctions regime against Iran - which is applicable in Gibraltar - is much narrower than that applicable in the US," the government said in a statement. "The Gibraltar Central Authority is unable to seek an order of the Supreme Court of Gibraltar to provide the restraining assistance required by the United States of America."
Iran's ambassador to Britain said the tanker was expected to leave Gibraltar late yesterday. "With the arrival of two specialised engineering teams to Gibraltar... the vessel is expected to leave tonight," Ambassador Hamid Baeidinejad said on Twitter.
Washington had attempted to detain the Grace 1 on the grounds that it had links to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which it has designated a terrorist organisation.
Iran has denied the tanker was ever headed to Syria.
Teheran said it was ready to dispatch its naval fleet to escort the tanker - now renamed the Adrian Darya-1 - if required.
"The era of hit and run is over... if top authorities ask the navy, we are ready to escort out tanker Adrian," Iran's navy commander, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, was quoted as saying by Mehr news agency.
Video footage and photographs yesterday showed the tanker flying the red, green and white flag of Iran and bearing its new name, painted in white, on the hull.
Its previous name, Grace 1, had been painted over. The vessel's anchor was still down.
The initial impounding of the Grace 1 kicked off a sequence of events that saw Teheran seize a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf two weeks later, heightening tensions on a vital international oil shipping route. That tanker, the Stena Impero, is still detained.
The two vessels have since become pawns in a bigger game, feeding into wider hostilities since the US last year pulled out of an international agreement to curb Iran's nuclear programme, and reimposed economic sanctions.
The Grace 1 had originally flown the Panamian flag but Panama's Maritime Authority last month said the vessel had been de-listed after an alert which indicated the ship had participated in or was linked to terrorism financing.