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Picardo meets with Iranian officials in bid to defuse Grace 1 tensions

Johnny Bugeja

Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, held talks with Iranian officials in London about the supertanker Grace 1, which was detained in Gibraltar a fortnight on suspicion it was carrying a shipment of light crude oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
The meeting in the Foreign Office was confirmed by a spokesman for the Gibraltar Government on Thursday evening.
"The Chief Minister met yesterday in London with Iranian officials to discuss matters related to the detention of Grace 1 and to seek to de-escalate all aspects of the issues arising," the spokesman said.
"The meeting was constructive and positive."
The spokesman declined to add any further detail on the nature or content of the talks.
But addressing the Gibraltar Parliament on Friday, Mr Picardo again underlined the bid to defuse tensions surrounding the case, while ensuring Gibraltar's legal process was properly allowed to run its course.
"At every stage [of the meeting with Iran] we emphasised the distinct nature of Gibraltar’s jurisdiction and the independence of the Supreme Court of Gibraltar as well as the importance of the due process of law being followed in a state governed by the rule of law," the Chief Minister said.
"We look forward to continuing to work constructively and positively with officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran to facilitate the release of the Grace 1 pursuant to the satisfaction of all legal requirements."
Mr Picardo also met with Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday to discuss the situation with the oil tanker, as well as issues relating to Brexit.
A Number 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister stressed the importance of Gibraltar's independent legal process being followed and paid tribute to their efforts to implement EU Syria sanctions."
Mr Picardo thanked Mrs May for "her support in allowing the Royal Marines to carry out the operation".
The Grace 1 ship was detained off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4 after it was suspected of carrying a cargo of crude oil destined for a Syrian refinery, violating EU sanctions.
The ship's captain, chief officer and two second officers were arrested and bailed without charge and the investigation is ongoing.
On July 5, the Supreme Court in Gibraltar granted a 14-day extension for authorities to detain the supertanker and conduct their investigation.
That extension expires today and the Chronicle understands a further extension will be sought from the court, although the authorities have not commented formally on this.
Last weekend, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt offered to facilitate the release of Grace 1 - pending due process in Gibraltar's courts - in return for guarantees from Tehran that it would not breach sanctions on Bashar Assad's regime.
Mr Picardo met Mr Hunt today and also discussed the tanker as well as other matters relating to Brexit and Gibraltar.
He met too with Boris Johnson, Mr Hunt's rival to succeed Mrs May as leader of the Conservative Party and the UK's next Prime Minister.
The meetings come against a backdrop of tension following the seizure of the Grace 1.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the seizure an act of "piracy" on Tuesday and told the UK to expect a response.
The detention prompted Iranian patrol boats to approach a British tanker as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz last week, with HMS Montrose having to intervene to drive them off.
On Thursday, there were reports that Iran had seized a foreign tanker in the Gulf, prompting the UK Government to again urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate tensions.
Iranian state television quoted Iran's Revolutionary Guards as saying a tanker smuggling fuel had been seized.
Although Iran did not name the vessel, shipping industry sources said they believe it to be the MT Riah. Refinitiv data showed that the last signal received from the vessel was on Sunday when it was in the Strait of Hormuz off the Iranian island of Qeshm, heading towards Oman from Larak Island.
"We're seeking further information following reports of a tanker seized in the Gulf," a UK Government spokeswoman said.
"We continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region."
"We are continuously monitoring the security situation there and are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation, in accordance with international law."
Iran has repeatedly denounced the seizure of the Grace 1 and warned that it will take retaliatory measures.
Earlier this week, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif told the BBC's Hardtalk programme that the ship had never been bound for Syria.
“We announced from the very beginning this ship was not going to Syria," he said, without saying where it was bound.
“It was going to a place in the Mediterranean other than Syria. We made it clear.”
In comments reported by The Guardian on Thursday, Mr Zarif said the US was unilaterally attempting to put pressure on Iran by trying to impose an unprecedented ban all Iranian oil exports.
“The UK by confiscating our ship is helping the US in imposing its illegal oil sanctions against Iran,” he said.
And there were concerns this week too about the wider potential implications of the case.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Labour MP Tulip Siddiq asked whether the UK Government was concerned that tensions surrounding the detention of the tanker in Gibraltar could impact on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman jailed in Iran over allegations of spying which she denies.
"This is primarily a matter for the Gibraltarian authorities, who are exercising a matter of law under EU sanctions," replied Andrew Murrison, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
"I do not believe the two cases are directly linked."
"However, we certainly need to ensure there is de-escalation in relation to our interaction with Iran, in Gibraltar and in the Gulf."
"When I visited Tehran recently, de-escalation was absolutely my message."