UK Offers to Release Iranian Tanker

Royal Marines board the Grace 1, July 4 (MoD)

Published Jul 15, 2019 7:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Saturday, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the Iranian-controlled tanker Grace 1 would be released if Iran could provide assurance that she will not deliver her cargo to Syria. 

UK Royal Marines seized the Grace 1 on July 4 as she passed through waters near Gibraltar, and they delivered her to the custody of Gibraltar's government. The ship's master and chief mate have been charged with violating EU sanctions on Syria (not U.S. sanctions on Iran) by attempting to deliver oil to the Syrian government-controlled refinery in Baniyas. 

In a Twitter message Saturday, Hunt said that he had spoken with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and reassured him that the UK's concern was the destination of the oil on Grace 1, not its Iranian origin. He added that the UK would facilitate the vessel's release from Gibraltar if it receives guarantees that the tanker will not go to Syria, "following due process in [Gibraltar's] courts." Hunt said that Zarif had assured him that Iran wants to resolve the issue and does not want to escalate the situation. 

Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, echoed Hunt's position in a statement released Saturday. The exclave is a British Overseas Territory, and under the terms of its constitution, the UK controls its foreign affairs and defense. 

Separately, Hunt suggested that the UK expects cooperation from Iran on a matter unrelated to Syria. "We support [the] nuclear deal but there can be no ‘partial’ compliance. You are either on path to a nuclearised Middle East or not, so whilst we seek to dial down tensions on Grace 1 we also expect progress in returning to JCPOA compliance. Remember [it is] not just Europe supporting it but Russia and China too," he said. 

Iran has repeatedly accused the UK of seizing the Grace 1 on behalf of the United States, which has imposed strict sanctions on Iran's oil exports (not Syria's imports). The American sanctions are a part of the Trump administration's unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the treaty that led to the shuttering of Iran's nuclear program in 2016. The new U.S. sanctions have isolated Iran economically, and now that the benefits of the JCPOA are no longer available, Tehran has accelerated its uranium enrichment activity beyond the limits of the treaty.