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Hunt: Iranian tanker could be released if guarantees given cargo not bound for Syria

Johnny Bugeja

Britain could help secure the release of a supertanker seized off the coast of Gibraltar if Iran provides "sufficient guarantees" that the cargo is not bound for Syria, the Foreign Secretary has said.

Jeremy Hunt told Sky News that he had spoken to his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif about the Grace 1 tanker, which was detained last week, in what he described as a "constructive call".

"I made it clear that we want to resolve the situation with the Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar. Our concern has always been the destination of the tanker and the fact that it was taking oil to Syria - not the origin of the oil," Mr Hunt told Sky.

"And I said that if we could receive sufficient guarantees that that tanker was not headed for Syria then we would be able to resolve the situation, following of course due process in the Gibraltar courts."

He added: "Foreign minister Zarif reassured me that Iran too wanted to resolve the situation, and I have also spoken to the chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, and they are working very closely with us to try and resolve the situation."

It comes as the captain, chief officer and two second officers of the Iranian supertanker were conditionally bailed without charge, according to the Royal Gibraltar Police.

The captain and his deputy were arrested on Thursday, while the other crew were arrested on Friday "as a consequence of the ongoing investigation into the suspected breach of EU sanctions on Syria", the RGP said in a statement.

Tensions in the region have continued to rise after the Grace 1 Iranian tanker was seized off Gibraltar in an operation involving Royal Marines from 42 Commando on July 4.

The vessel was suspected of violating EU sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian oil to the Baniyas refinery in Syria - with laboratory testing confirming the cargo to be 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil.

A warning was issued by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of unspecified "repercussions" in response of the seizure.

Days later, HMS Montrose was forced to act against three patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz as they attempted to impede the passage of BP-operated tanker British Heritage.

The Royal Navy frigate drove off the boats, which were thought to have been operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - an incident they have denied.

On Friday, plans to dispatch Type 45 Destroyer HMS Duncan to the region to relieve HMS Montrose were brought forward by the Government, so that the Type 23 frigate can undergo planned maintenance and crew changes.

In London, ministers including the Foreign Secretary have urged Tehran to "de-escalate" the situation in the Gulf.

The Royal Gibraltar Police said the investigation related to the arrests is ongoing and the Grace 1 remains in detention.

GIBRALTAR REACTS

On Saturday evening, the Gibraltar Government issued a statement in response to the latest developments.

"I was pleased to discuss with the Foreign Secretary the political issues surrounding our initial detention of the Grace 1, the investigation that is ongoing and the extended period of detention presently ordered by the Gibraltar Supreme Court,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in the statement.

“Mr Hunt called me ahead of speaking with the Foreign Minister of Iran, Mr Javad Zarif.”
“I therefore asked the Foreign Secretary to clarify to the Iranian authorities on my behalf that all the decisions made by Gibraltar in respect of the detention of the Grace 1 were made exclusively with a view to the Syrian destination of the vessel, the Baniyas oil refinery which is subject to EU sanctions, and without any regard to the origin of its cargo.”

“That was the exact basis on which the United Kingdom Armed Forces, through a detachment of Royal Marines, were deployed to provide military assistance to our authorities last week.”

“I also asked that the Foreign Secretary should communicate to the Iranian authorities that Gibraltar remained determined to enforce the EU sanctions against Syria though our Court processes but that we would be prepared to facilitate the release of the detained assets to a rightful claimant if we were satisfied that we had received guarantees that it would not be going to Syria or to any entity sanctioned under the relevant EU regulations.”

“I emphasised that the Foreign Secretary should feel free to say that I would be happy to meet any relevant officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran who wished to discuss or clarify matters further either in London or Gibraltar.”

“I consider this may be a useful way of ensuring any further misunderstandings as to the motivations of our actions in respect of the Grace 1 and its cargo.”

“I have spoken again this evening to Foreign Secretary Hunt after his call with Foreign Minister Zarif and have been pleased to hear of Iran's constructive approach and their wish also to resolve this situation, which comes at a time of heightened international tensions.”