Washington: The United States on Thursday threatened a visa ban on the crew of a seized Iranian supertanker whose departure from Gibraltar Washington failed to block.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the Grace 1 was assisting Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which the US deems a terrorist organisation, by transporting oil from Iran to Syria when it was detained last month.
"Crew members of vessels assisting the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) by transporting oil from Iran may be ineligible for visas or admission to the United States under the terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds," Ortagus said.
"The maritime community should be aware that the US government intends to revoke visas held by members of such crews. In the case of the M/T Grace I, we will continue to act consistent with our existing policies concerning those who provide material support to the IRGC."
The crew were aboard the Panama-flagged supertanker that was detained off Europa Point in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory on the Spanish coast, last month. The Gibraltar authorities had said the vessel is loaded to capacity with crude oil enroute to Syria, in breach of European Union (EU) sanctions.
But after a hearing in Gibraltar on Thursday, the local Supreme Court of the region ruled that the tanker should be released after formal written assurances from Iran that the ship would not discharge its cargo in Syria and therefore not be in breach of EU sanctions.
"On 13 August, I received written assurance from the Republic of Iran that, if released, the destination of Grace 1 would not be an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions. I welcome that assurance. This is an important material change in the destination of the vessel and the beneficiary of its cargo," said Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, a semi-autonomous British Overseas Territory.
"Indeed, this assurance has the effect of ensuring that we have deprived the Assad regime in Syria of more than $140-million of valuable crude oil In light of the assurances we have received, there are no longer any reasonable grounds for the continued legal detention of the Grace 1 in order to ensure compliance with the EU Sanctions Regulation," he said.
A total of 28 crew on board the vessel include majority Indians but also Russians, Latvians and Filipinos, who had spent over a month in detention on board the ship since it was seized in early July. They should now be able to sail on to a destination agreed with Iran and the owner of the tanker the National Iranian Oil Company.
Picardo, who said he has been conducting consultations with the Iranian authorities for weeks in an effort to de-escalate the political tensions surrounding the seizure of the vessel, confirmed that the tanker has since been re-flagged under the flag of Iran and re-insured.
He added: "Separately, the US Department of Justice has requested that a new legal procedure for the detention of the vessel should be commenced. That is a matter for our independent Mutual Legal Assistance authorities who will make an objective, legal determination of that request for separate proceedings.
"The Grace 1 is therefore now released from detention under the Sanctions Act by operation of law, as confirmed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court."
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said it had noted the steps taken by Gibraltar's authorities to prevent the ship's cargo from reaching Syria in contravention of EU Syria Sanctions and called on Iran to abide by its assurances.
"We note the Government of Gibraltar has received assurances from Iran that the Grace 1 will not proceed to Syria. Iran must abide by the assurances they have provided. We will not stand by and allow Iran or anyone to bypass vital EU sanctions on a regime that has deployed chemical weapons against its own people, an FCO spokesperson said.
The Gibraltar port and law enforcement agencies had detained the supertanker and its cargo on July 4 during an operation conducted by the Royal Gibraltar Police (RGP), Customs and Port Authority with the support of British Royal Marines.
The detention of the vessel relates to the suspected destination of the cargo, the Banyas refinery in Syria, which is owned by the Banyas Oil Refinery Company. The Gibraltar government said that its investigations produced evidence confirming that at the time of its detention the Grace 1 was "indeed carrying its cargo to the Baniyas refinery in Syria", which was in contravention of Article 14 of the EU Regulation on Sanctions on Syria.
However, following the assurances given by Iran and the captain of the ship, the Gibraltar government has "revoked the Specification of the Vessel order.
The US demand is reportedly part of the Trump administration's efforts to intensify the effect of existing Western economic sanctions on both Iran and Syria.
Iran had called for the UK to release its oil tanker and warned Britain not to get involved in "this dangerous game", which eventually led to Iran's seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf as well.
"There is no comparison or linkage between Iran's unacceptable and illegal seizure of, and attacks on, commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the enforcement of EU Syria sanctions by the Government of Gibraltar. Freedom of navigation for commercial shipping must be respected and international law upheld, the FCO said.
Tehran blames the US for arranging to have its ship seized in the wake of sanctions imposed against Iran with the aim of halting all its oil exports. European countries do not have sanctions against Iran but have had them in place against Iran's ally Syria since 2011.
(With PTI and AFP inputs)