Gibraltar decided on Thursday to free the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1, detained off the British overseas territory six weeks ago by Royal Marines, paving the way for a possible swap for a British-flagged tanker seized by Iran in the Gulf.
The two tankers have become pawns in the standoff between Iran and the West, their fate tangled up in the diplomatic differences between the EU’s big powers and the United States.
The Grace 1 was seized by commandos in darkness off peninsula on July 4.
Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo decided to lift the detention order after formal written assurances from Tehran 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 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,” Picardo said.
It was not immediately clear when the Grace 1 would sail as the United States 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,” Picardo said.
The seizure of the Grace 1 triggered a row with Tehran, which accused Britain of piracy. Two weeks later, on July 19, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Gulf.
While both Britain and Iran deny planning to swap the vessels, there has been a widespread expectation that the British-flagged ship will not be freed until the Iranian tanker is released.
Iran’s ambassador to London, Hamid Baeidinejad, said the United States was “desperately” trying to block the release but faced a “miserable defeat”.
He tweeted that the tanker would be leaving Gibraltar soon.