The U.S. government said Friday that it had a warrant to seize an Iranian supertanker caught in a diplomatic standoff off the coast of the British overseas territory Gibraltar.
A court document released Friday by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington showed the court had issued the warrant to seize the vessel.
The United States is seeking to take control of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1, along with the oil it carries and $995,000, on the ground on that the ship has links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.
The Supreme Court in Gibraltar ruled Thursday that the tanker could be released from detention, shortly after the United States launched a last-minute legal bid to hold it.
However, despite the ruling, the tanker remained off the coast of Gibraltar on Friday. And a lawyer for the ship’s Indian captain told the Associated Press that the captain no longer wanted to maintain command of the vessel.
The Grace 1 was carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil when Gibraltar police and British Special Forces seized it on July 4. It was believed to be transporting the oil to Syria in violation of both European Union and U.S. sanctions.
On Thursday, Gibraltar’s government said it had received assurances from Tehran that it would not send the crude oil cargo to Syria.
An Iranian official, however, later disputed that any assurances had been given. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency as saying that “Iran has given no assurances over the Grace 1 not going to Syria to secure its release,” and that Gibraltar was only seeking to “save face.”
After the Iranian tanker was seized, Tehran retaliated by taking control of a British tanker, the Stena Impero, on July 19 in the strategic Strait of Hormuz — the shipping lane for about a fifth of the world’s crude — for breaking “international maritime rules.” Iran still holds the Stena Impero.
Iran had repeatedly called for the release of the Grace 1, saying it had been in international waters and was not headed to Syria.
Tehran condemned Thursday’s U.S. bid to block the release of the ship.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter, “Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism — including depriving cancer patients of medicine — the U.S. attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas. This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin’s contempt for the law.”
In a Thursday interview with VOA Persian, Brookings Institution foreign policy research director Michael O’Hanlon said he did not see Gibraltar’s decision on the tanker as a significant failure for U.S. policy.
“I think this is in the category of ‘win a few, lose a few.’ We decided to make a run at [the tanker]. Apparently, we have been unsuccessful,” O’Hanlon said. “It doesn’t change the overall situation, which is that we are squeezing Iran harder and harder economically. They are getting less and less oil out, even as they get some sanctions evasion and avoidance. You don’t have to necessarily win every single engagement of this type for the overall strategy to succeed.”
The dispute over the tanker is part of the ongoing confrontation between U.S. President Donald Trump and the Iranian government over its nuclear program, ballistic missile development and involvement in regional conflicts. The confrontation escalated last year when Trump withdrew the U.S. from a 2015 international agreement in which Iran agreed to curb activities that could be diverted to making nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.
Trump said the 2015 deal did not do enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or engaging in other perceived malign behaviors. By withdrawing from it, he unilaterally reimposed U.S. sanctions against Iran, hobbling its economy in a so far unsuccessful effort to force Iran to negotiate a new deal.
Trump has said such a deal should cover not just Iran’s nuclear program but also its activities related to ballistic missiles and support for Islamist militant groups hostile toward the U.S. and U.S. allies.
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VOA Persia’s Katherine Ahn contributed to this report.