US issues warrant to seize Iranian oil tanker Grace 1

Justice Department seeks seizure of Iranian vessel citing US sanctions violations after Gibraltar orders its release.

    US issues warrant to seize Iranian oil tanker Grace 1
    Grace 1 sits anchored, with its name and Panama's flag removed, after the Gibraltar Supreme Court lifted its detention order [Jon Nazca/Reuters]

    The United States has issued a warrant for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker captured by British Royal Marines in Gibraltar last month for allegedly violating international sanctions. 

    The Grace 1 vessel, which was ordered to be released by the Gibraltar Supreme Court after 43 days in detention, shifted position but remained anchored in the British Mediterranean territory late on Friday.

    The tanker was seized by British Royal Marines at the western mouth of the Mediterranean on July 4 on suspicion of violating European Union sanctions by taking oil to Syria, a close ally of Iran.

    Washington had attempted to seize the Grace 1 on the grounds that it had links to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which it has designated a "terrorist" organisation.

    According to the warrant issued on Friday, the US Department of Justice alleged that the ship was part of a scheme "to unlawfully access the US financial system to support illicit shipments to Syria from Iran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps."

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    The court document said the vessel and the 2.1 million barrels of oil aboard are subject to forfeiture based on violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, as well as bank fraud, money laundering, and "terrorism" statutes.

    It also ordered the seizure of $995,000 in an account at an unnamed US bank associated with Paradise Global Trading LLC, which it called a shell company associated with businesses which act for the Revolutionary Guards.

    There was no immediate word from Britain or Gibraltar over whether they would act on the warrant, as Iran said it was sending a new crew to pilot the tanker.

    "This US complaint alleges that Iran has violated US sanctions after the US pulled out the 2015 nuclear deal last year," said Al Jazeera's John Hendren, reporting from Washington, DC.

    "The big question is will the British government help the US by seizing this ship, will Interpol be involved or will the US government try to seize that ship," he added.

    Need for repairs

    On Thursday, a Gibraltar judge ordered the release of the Grace 1, six weeks after it was detained, rejecting a last-minute legal move by Washington demanding that the ship remain detained.

    The release came after Gibraltar's government said it had received written assurances from Iran that the ship would not be headed for countries "subject to European Union sanctions".

    Gibraltar court releases seized Iranian oil tanker

    "We have deprived the [al-]Assad regime in Syria of more than $140 million worth of crude oil," Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo said.

    According to radio transmission exchanges overheard by Al Jazeera, the ship is expected to set sail on Sunday evening. 

    The Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper also reported that the vessel was unlikely to sail before Sunday, citing an unnamed source who added that it was waiting for six new crew members including a captain to arrive that day.

    A lawyer for the Grace 1's current captain, an Indian national, said that his client had asked to be replaced.

    "He doesn't want to stay in command of the ship, he wants to go home, because he wasn't happy to go back and pick up the broken pieces," his lawyer Richard Wilkinson told The Associated Press news agency. "But he's a professional skipper and needs to wait for a new crew to do a proper handover."

    The lawyer said the tanker had been due for repairs in Gibraltar even before it was seized and its detention impeded the replacement of parts, making the tanker unfit for an immediate long voyage.

    Renamed for voyage

    Earlier on Friday, Iranian officials said the tanker was preparing to set sail under an Iranian flag after its registration was switched from Panama and would be renamed the Adrian Darya for the voyage.

    Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from Gibraltar, said the Grace 1 signage had been removed as well as the Panamanian flag.

    "The navigation systems, all of them, indicate that it's still Grace 1, but in terms of maritime law, this vessel really has no visible identity," he said. 

    The Grace 1 vessel and its July 4 seizure came amid surging tensions in the Gulf after several alleged Iranian attacks on smaller tankers.

    The US - citing Tehran's threat to American allies - expanded its military presence in the region with a new aircraft carrier task force, missile batteries and strategic bombers

    Iran called the detention of the Grace 1 an "illegal interception" staged by the US, while Washington cheered it as "excellent news".

    Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since US President Donald Trump withdrew last year from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran, reimposing crippling unilateral sanctions.

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    What's behind the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies