Fri, 20 Sep 2019

Shipping and other international authorities continue to monitor an Iranian supertanker cleared for release after a month in custody in Gibraltar over possible breaching of EU sanctions, but the reportedly renamed vessel might be sailing into a showdown as U.S. authorities are still seeking its seizure.

Officials in Gibraltar on August 18 rejected a renewed U.S. request that they not release the tanker, saying in a statement: 'The EU sanctions regime against Iran -- which is applicable in Gibraltar -- is much narrower than that applicable in the U.S.'

'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,' it added.

The Panamanian-flagged Grace 1 was said by Iranian officials to have been reflagged as Iranian, renamed the Adrian Darya-1, and was reportedly preparing to depart Gibraltar at any time.

It was not clear how international authorities would respond to the U.S. warrant for the vessel's seizure over alleged ties to an arm of the Iranian military.

This and other shipping disputes have come amid rising tensions between Iran and the West over U.S. sanctions and mounting military and commercial incidents in and around the Persian Gulf, which sees around one-fifth of international oil shipments.

Iranian Navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi was quoted by Mehr news agency as saying that he was prepared to send ships to escort the Adrian Darya-1 on its journey.

'The era of hit and run is over,' he reportedly said. 'If top authorities ask the navy, we are ready to escort out tanker Adrian.'

Video and photos on August 18 showed the vessel at anchor, flying the Iranian flag and displaying its new name on the hull.

The Grace 1 was seized by U.K. Royal Marines forces as it entered the Mediterranean Sea on July 4. It was reportedly carrying over 2 million barrels of Iranian oil that some feared was bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

And while Gibraltar withdrew its five-week-old detention order against the Grace 1 on August 15, the U.S. Justice Department issued a warrant over its alleged connections to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), an arm of the Iranian military that was recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by U.S. authorities.

The U.S. warrant said the Grace 1, all of the oil aboard, and $995,000 are subject to forfeiture, citing what it called violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and bank fraud, money-laundering, and terrorism statutes.

A representative for the Grace 1's shipping agent, Astralship, on August 17 said a new crew of Indian and Ukrainian nationals would be taking command of the Iranian tanker at port in Gibraltar and that it would be ready to depart the British territory within '24 to 48 hours.' The company had not been told of its next destination, he added.

Iranian officials, who have insisted the shipment is not bound for Syria, said on August 16 that the vessel would be setting sail under the Iranian flag and renamed the Adrian Darya.

Iran's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, tweeted that the renaming of the vessel 'has created a false impression for some that it is intended to circumvent sanctions.' Instead, he said, the move was a result of Panamanian officials' response to the seizure and related matters.

Shipping tensions increased with Iran's seizure of a U.K.-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz later in July in what they suggested was a tit-for-tat move.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called for an international effort to escort vessels to defend commercial shipping interests in the Persian Gulf against harassment and illegal interference, meeting with support from the U.K. and from some other Western and Gulf state officials.

But Iranian officials, who have routinely said the Strait of Hormuz is under their close watch, said recently that 'outside presences' in the region can destabilize things.

Then on August 18, Reuters quoted the IRGC's naval chief warning that the presence of the United States and Britain in the region 'means insecurity' and seemingly suggesting its own regional coalition to provide security in the Gulf.

'The presence of America and England in this region means insecurity,' Iran's ILNA news agency quoted IRGC naval commander Alireza Tangsiri as saying.

The U.S. Justice Department accused the Grace 1 of scheming to 'unlawfully access the U.S. financial system to support illicit shipments to Syria from Iran by the [IRGC].'

Statements from Washington and Tehran have become increasingly harsh since Trump withdrew the United States last year from a deal with other world powers and Iran to exchange sanctions relief for curbs on Iran's disputed nuclear program.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and Press TV

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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