Speculation mounts that Grace 1 will soon be released
There was mounting speculation yesterday that the supertanker Grace 1 could soon be released, with both Gibraltar and Iran signalling ongoing efforts to de-escalate tensions in the wake of the ship's detention.
Iran said it had provided documents that would help secure the ship's release, although it did not offer any further details.
"Britain is interested in releasing Iran's oil tanker Grace 1 ... following the exchange of some documents," the deputy head of Iran's ports and Maritime Organisation, Jalil Eslami, said in remarks reported by Iran’s IRNA news agency.
"We hope the release will take place soon."
The Gibraltar Government would neither confirm nor deny the claim by the Iranian official, but insisted it was working to resolve the impasse.
“We continue to seek to de-escalate issues arising since the lawful detention of Grace 1,” a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place said.
The Grace 1 was seized in Gibraltar on July 4 by law enforcement agencies supporting by Royal Marines on suspicion of violating EU sanctions by taking oil to Syria, a claim denied by Iran.
"The vessel was seized based on false allegations...it has not been freed yet," Mr Eslami said yesterday.
But Gibraltar, which detained the vessel with the full support of the UK Government, insists the decision was lawful and in compliance with its EU obligations.
Authorities in Gibraltar were last month given permission by Chief Justice Anthony Dudley to detain the vessel until mid-August.
The current detention order on the vessel expires on Saturday night and the case is due back before the Supreme Court on Thursday morning. In theory at least, Gibraltar's Attorney General, Michael Llamas, QC, could apply for a further extension to the detention order under Gibraltar law.
Authorities in Gibraltar will also have to decide on the fate of the ship's captain and three officers who were arrested shortly after the vessel was detained.
All four are currently on police bail and have not been charged with any offence.
While there were clear indications on Tuesday that intense efforts were under way to secure the ship's release, there was no confirmation as to the grounds on which the detention might be lifted.
The UK Government had previously offered to help secure the release of the Grace 1 - pending due process in Gibraltar’s courts - in return for guarantees from Tehran that it would not breach EU sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria.
One possibility could be that Gibraltar and the UK have secured those guarantees and that the vessel will now discharge its cargo in a country other than Syria.
Both Gibraltar and the UK have repeatedly stressed that the Grace 1 was seized because of suspicions its cargo of 2.1m barrels of crude was bound for a Syrian refinery.
They said the Iranian origin of the cargo was not a factor in the decision to stop the supertanker when it entered British waters off Gibraltar to collect stores on July 4.
On Monday evening, the ship's automatic satellite tracking system showed briefly that its next destination would be a port in Morocco, although the information was removed 10 minutes after it appeared.
There was also speculation in specialist publications that another possible destination for the cargo could be Algeria.
The developments come against the background of tension in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s key maritime chokepoints.
Two weeks after the capture of the Iranian tanker, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a British tanker, Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz, accusing it of marine violations.
Britain considers that action to have been illegal retaliation.
The wider backdrop to the tanker stand-off is the deterioration of relations between Iran and the West since the United States last year pulled out of an international agreement which curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme in return for an easing of economic sanctions on Iran.