The global standoff between the United States and Iran took a new turn Saturday after the United States issued a warrant for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker detained in Gibraltar, just hours after the ship was ordered released.
The legal action thrust the Grace 1 supertanker into the heart of tensions between Washington and Tehran a day after a dispute over its fate between Britain and Iran had apparently been resolved, reports The Washington Post.
The British navy intercepted the Grace 1 off Gibraltar last month on suspicion it was delivering oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. The move triggered the capture by Iran two weeks later of a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, apparently in retaliation.
A Gibraltar court ordered the release of the Grace 1 on Thursday after Britain said it had received guarantees from Tehran that the ship would not deliver oil to Syria, prompting speculation that Iran would release the British ship.
Instead, the Grace 1's departure may be further delayed as authorities in Gibraltar consider whether to act on the U.S. warrant, unveiled late Friday night in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
It seeks the seizure of the ship, the forfeiture of the 2.1 million barrels of oil it is carrying, and the sum of $999,500 on the grounds that the shipment violates U.S. sanctions against Iran as well as Syria.
The Grace 1 had been expected to leave Gibraltar earlier Friday, but it had already been delayed because the captain and five crew members resigned, the Gibraltar Chronicle reported. A new captain and crew were expected to arrive Sunday, the newspaper said.
Iran had no immediate comment on the U.S. legal action, but Iranian media noted that the warrant states that it was filed on Nov. 16, 2019, not Aug. 16. This "sensational mistake" means the United States has no authority to seize the ship until November, Iran's English language Press TV said.
The U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia did not immediately respond to a query about the apparent discrepancy.
The warrant marks the first attempt by the United States to interdict a ship since President Donald Trump walked away from the international deal over Iran's nuclear program and imposed tough new sanctions.
It risks further tensions in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. and British warships have embarked on patrols to protect commercial shipping from Iranian threats.
European officials say it is also the first time an Iranian ship has attempted to deliver oil to Syria via E.U. territorial waters in the western Mediterranean, a circuitous route that took the Grace 1 around Africa. In the past, Iran has sent supplies to Syria through the Suez Canal, a much shorter route that avoids E.U. territory.
But new U.S. sanctions targeting supplies of oil to Syria, as well as Iranian oil exports, have made it harder for Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, to make the vital deliveries, contributing to acute shortages of fuel in Syria earlier this year.
The warrant alleges an elaborate effort to disguise the origins and destination of the Grace 1's cargo. The ship left Iran in April, turning off its transponders while it was in Iranian waters and carrying forged documents to show that the oil it was carrying came from Iraq, the document says. "Relevant authorities in Iraq have confirmed that the documents were fraudulent," it adds.
As the tanker set off, a "confidential source" revealed that the Grace 1 was destined for the Syrian port of Baniyas and was scheduled to arrive in early July, the warrant says.
"Charts and electronic equipment recovered from onboard the Grace 1, WhatsApp messages recovered from crew members' mobile devices, and crew members' statements revealed that the Grace 1 was destined for Port Banias, Syria in violation of U.S. sanctions," according to the document.
At the same time, a network of front companies laundered money in support of the shipment through the U.S. financial system, in a bid to circumvent U.S. sanctions not only against oil deliveries to Syria but against transactions with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was responsible for the shipment and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
The companies included the ship's Singapore-based owner, identified only as Company 1, and others in the United Arab Emirates, St. Kitts, Nevada, Oman and Switzerland, the document said.
The Grace 1 was originally flagged in Panama, but since its detention in Gibraltar it has been reflagged in Iran and renamed the Adrian Daria, according to Iranian officials quoted in Iranian news reports.