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U.S. Bullies Its Way Into Dispute, Moves to Seize Iranian Tanker

British Gibraltar ordered the ship's release to ease tensions. Washington wasn't having any of it.
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Despite eleventh hour efforts on the part of the U.S. to detain the Grace 1 Iranian oil tanker seized by the Royal Navy in July, the vessel was released Thursday. Gibraltar’s Chief Minister said he had accepted a pledge from Iran that if the tanker was released, it would not be taken to Syria.

The Grace 1 was seized last month by the British Royal Navy for alleged European Union sanctions violations. The British claimed that Iran was using the tanker to ship oil to Syria.

Before the last minute U.S. legal action, authorities in Gibraltar had announced they would release the Grace 1 and drop legal actions against the ship’s captain and crew in order to ease tensions.

The U.S. application was scheduled to be heard later on Thursday by the Gibraltar Supreme Court. The U.S. Department of Justice sought to extend the detention of the oil tanker, but the Gibraltar Supreme Court later dropped the detention order, essentially moving evaluation of the U.S. request to another government agency for consideration, according to CBS. In the mean time, the tanker is free to leave.

The U.S. filing seems to confirm reports that the U.S. urged the British detention of the Iranian ship in July.

Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism—including depriving cancer patients of medicine— the US attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas,” tweeted Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. “This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin’s contempt for the law.”

After the British decision to detain the Grace 1 in July, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero as it traveled through the Strait of Hormuz.

Tensions with Tehran have escalated since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and resumed economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Without citing specific evidence, the U.S. has blamed Iran for recent attacks on other oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

“Designed to provoke Tehran: Just as #Iran-UK-#Gibraltar were set to have #Grace1 tanker released today, #Trump admin moves in to spoil the effort. Will become another source of tension in Europe-US relations over Iran policy,” Ellie Geranmayeh, Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted.

As TAC previously reported, the legal rationale for detaining the Iranian vessel and its crew is questionable, because Iran is not a member of the European Union and thus can not violate EU sanctions.

“The UK had no legal right to enforce those sanctions,” writes Gareth Porter, and the seizure “was a blatant violation of the clearly defined global rules that govern the passage of merchant ships through international straits.”

It is unclear whether UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will support Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran. But the American decision to pursue its case in Gibraltar’s courts may indicate that Britain is unwilling to further escalate tensions with the Islamic Republic.

Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.