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President Rouhani hints Iran would reciprocate if Grace 1 is released

Johnny Bugeja

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has hinted that Iran would reciprocate if the supertanker Grace 1 is released from detention in Gibraltar.
In comments during a meeting of his cabinet in Tehran on Wednesday, President Rouhani suggested Iran would release a UK-flagged vessel seized by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz last week if the Grace 1 was allowed to sail from Gibraltar.
“We are not going to continue tensions with some European countries and if they are committed to international frameworks and abandon some actions, including what they did in Gibraltar, they will receive a proper response from Iran," the president said, according to his official website.
The Grace 1 was seized in British waters off Gibraltar earlier this month on suspicion it was carrying Iranian crude oil bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
An investigation is under way and the Supreme Court in Gibraltar has granted a detention order until the middle of August.
Four crew members were arrested by the Royal Gibraltar Police but have been released on bail without charge pending the outcome of the investigation.
Iran has accused the UK of "piracy" and has made clear that the seizure of the UK-flagged ship Stena Impero last week was in response to the detention of the Grace 1, which it insists was not bound for Syria.
But the UK has firmly rejected that parallel, insisting the detention in Gibraltar was lawful and calling on Iran to release the British vessel and respect the freedom of navigation through the strategic waters in the Strait of Hormuz.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt signalled earlier this month that the Grace 1 could be released – pending due process in Gibraltar's courts – if Iran could demonstrate that its final destination was not Syria.
Speaking in the House of Lords this week, Lord Ahmed, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, said the Grace 1 had been seized in Gibraltar waters, while the Stena Impero had been seized in Omani waters, "so the basis for any intervention is very different".
"Iran has acted unlawfully, according to the law of the sea," he said.
"Iran has acted illegally."
"Our detention of the ship was on suspicion of cargo being carried by 'Grace 1' that was headed for Syria, breaking EU sanctions."
Lord Ahmed mentioned efforts last week to obtain guarantees from the Iranian government about the final destination of 2.1m barrels of crude oil on the Grace 1.
The UK Government, he said, "did a great deal to keep the diplomatic track alive", including a discussions between the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
Lord Ahmed also mentioned the meeting between the Chief Minister and Iranian embassy officials in London.
But he said that it was against the backdrop of those negotiations that Iran decided to seize the Stena Impero.
"We had to be given the assurance that it did not contravene the EU sanctions that had been imposed on Syria, but this was not forthcoming," he said.
"It was disappointing that, while these negotiations were continuing with the Iranian Government directly, this action was taken."
"Iran describes this as tit for tat; the fact is that detaining the 'Stena Impero' was not legal. It acted unlawfully."
The UK, which has received support from key European partners including Germany for the detention of the Grace 1, is now seeking to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
"Under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship's passage - let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy," Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament when he announced the move earlier this week.
"We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region."
He said Britain has had constructive discussions with a number of countries in the last 48 hours over the mission.
Britain has also asked all British-flagged ships to give the government notice of intentions to pass through the Strait of Hormuz..
"We will then advise them as to the safest way to transit, which may involve travelling in convoy," Mr Hunt said, adding that Britain would also strengthen measures to protect ships flying the flags of other countries but which had British crew.
"It is of course not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship or indeed eliminate all risks of piracy."
"But the risks can be substantially reduced if commercial shipping companies cooperate fully with instructions from the Department of Transport, which we strongly encourage them to do."
The latest developments come against the backdrop of mounting tension after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year.
President Trump has said he is willing to hold talks with the Islamic Republic and on Wednesday, President Rouhani appeared to signal his willingness too, telling his cabinet that Iran was ready for "just" negotiations but not if they mean surrender.
"As long as I have the responsibility for the executive duties of the country, we are completely ready for just, legal and honest negotiations to solve the problems," President Rouhani said, without stating explicitly what negotiations he had in mind.
"But at the same time we are not ready to sit at the table of surrender under the name of negotiations."