US issues warrant to seize released Iranian oil tanker
BEIRUT — The global standoff between the United States and Iran took a new turn Saturday after the United States issued a warrant for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker detained in Gibraltar, just hours after the ship was ordered released.
The legal action thrust the Grace 1 supertanker into the heart of tensions between Washington and Tehran a day after a dispute over its fate between Britain and Iran had apparently been resolved.
The British navy intercepted the Grace 1 off Gibraltar last month on suspicion it was delivering oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. The move triggered the capture by Iran two weeks later of a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, apparently in retaliation.
A Gibraltar court ordered the release of the Grace 1 on Thursday after Britain said it had received guarantees from Tehran that the ship would not deliver oil to Syria, prompting speculation that Iran would release the British ship.
Instead, the Grace 1’s departure may be delayed as authorities in Gibraltar consider whether to act on the U.S. warrant, unveiled late Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It seeks the seizure of the ship, the forfeiture of the 2.1 million barrels of oil it is carrying, and the sum of $999,500 on the grounds that the shipment violates U.S. sanctions against Iran as well as Syria.
The Grace 1 had been expected to leave Gibraltar earlier Friday, but it had already been delayed because the captain and five crew members resigned, the Gibraltar Chronicle reported. A new captain and crew were expected to arrive Sunday, the newspaper said.
Richard De la Rosa, shipping agent for the supertanker, said the new crew members were Indian and Ukrainian nationals hired by the Indian managers of the ship and that his company had not been informed about the supertanker’s next destination.
He said the tanker could be sailing away in the next “24 to 48 hours.”
Analysts had said the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar could see Britain’s Stena Impero go free.
Iran had no immediate comment on the U.S. legal action, but Iranian media noted that the warrant states that it was filed Nov. 16, 2019, not Aug. 16. This “sensational mistake” means the United States has no authority to seize the ship until November, Iran’s English language Press TV said.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia did not respond to a query about the apparent discrepancy.
The warrant marks the first attempt by the United States to interdict a ship since President Donald Trump walked away from the international deal over Iran’s nuclear program and imposed tough new sanctions. It risks further tensions in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. and British warships have embarked on patrols to protect commercial shippers.
The warrant alleges an elaborate effort to disguise the origins and destination of the Grace 1’s cargo. The ship left Iran in April, turning off transponders while it was in Iranian waters and carrying forged documents to show that the oil it was carrying came from Iraq, the document says.
A Gibraltar court ordered that the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1, above, be released Thursday.