LONDON/GIBRALTAR • The Gibraltar authorities decided yesterday to free the Iranian tanker Grace 1, detained off the British overseas territory six weeks ago by Royal Marines, paving the way for a possible swop for a British-flagged tanker seized by Iran in the Gulf.
The two tankers have become pawns in the stand-off between Iran and the West, their fate tangled up in the diplomatic differences between the EU's big powers and the United States.
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo decided to lift the detention order after formal written assurances from Iran that the ship will not discharge its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria, but added that the ship had not yet been released.
"In the light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 in order to ensure compliance with the EU sanctions regulation," Mr Picardo said.
It was not clear when the Grace 1 would sail as the US had made a late request to seize the vessel.
"That is a matter for our independent Mutual Legal Assistance authorities, who will make an objective, legal determination of that request for separate proceedings," Mr Picardo said.
Washington's action is the latest in a series of back-and-forth jabs that the US and Iran have traded, raising fears of an escalation into all-out conflict in the Persian Gulf.
Gibraltar yesterday freed the tanker's Iranian crew from detention, the latest sign that officials in the semi-autonomous territory, Britain and Iran might be attempting to step back from the confrontation, possibly by agreeing to exchange seized vessels.
British marines and Gibraltar port officials had seized the Grace 1 on July 4, charging that it was carrying oil to Syria in violation of a European Union embargo.
In the light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 in order to ensure compliance with the EU sanctions regulation.
MR FABIAN PICARDO, Gibraltar's Chief Minister.
Iran quickly retaliated by detaining a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow entryway to the Persian Gulf.
Tankers carry about 20 per cent of the world's oil supply through the Strait of Hormuz to destinations around the world.
The area has become a flash point as tensions have risen between the US and Iran since President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal and imposed sanctions that have hurt Iran's economy.
US officials have blamed Iran for attacks in May and June that damaged several tankers in the region. In addition to the Stena Impero, Iran seized a tanker registered in Panama in July - a vessel chartered by a company in the United Arab Emirates - and later said it had apprehended an Iraqi tanker.
Britain said this month that it would join a US-led mission to protect ships moving through the strait.
While Iran had hinted at an exchange, Mr Dominic Raab, Britain's new Foreign Secretary, recently ruled out that possibility, saying that a swop would legitimise the Iranian seizure.
"We are not going to barter a ship that was detained legally with a ship that was detained illegally," Mr Raab told Sky News during a summit meeting in Thailand. "That's not the way that Iran will come in from the cold."
Meanwhile, Iran's ambassador to London, Mr Hamid Baeidinejad, said the US was "desperately" trying to block the release but faced a "miserable defeat". He tweeted that the tanker would be leaving Gibraltar soon.