Renamed Adrian Aryra 1 super tanker hosting an Iranian flag sails in the waters in the British territory of Gibraltar, Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. Authorities in Gibraltar on Sunday rejected the United States' latest request not to release a seized Iranian supertanker, clearing the way for the vessel to set sail after being detained last month for allegedly attempting to breach European Union sanctions on Syria. (AP Photo/Marcos Moreno)
The Iranian tanker at the centre of a stand-off between Iran and the west flies the Iranian flag off the coast of Gibraltar © AP

Gibraltar has rejected a US legal request to seize the Iranian tanker that has been at the centre of a stand-off between Iran and the west.

The British overseas territory’s justice ministry said on Sunday that it was “unable to seek” a court order to provide the “restraining assistance required by the US”.

The vessel sailed out of the port on Sunday evening and headed into international waters, according to local media and the Iranian Fars news agency.

The Grace 1 has been held in Gibraltar since local police and British commandos apprehended the vessel on July 4 because it was suspected to be shipping 2.1m barrels of Iranian light crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

The decision by the UK and Gibraltar increased tensions between Iran and the west. Concerns about maritime security in the oil-rich Gulf were heightened last month after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, in what was widely viewed as a retaliatory act.

Gibraltar’s supreme court on Thursday ruled that the vessel could be released, citing assurances from Tehran that it would not go to Syria. But the Trump administration complicated the situation by issuing a legal application to Gibraltar seeking the “restraint” of the Grace 1.

After Gibraltar’s justice ministry rejected the US’s legal move, Washington on Friday sent additional information claiming the supertanker and its load were controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the elite military force.

The Trump administration designated the guards a terrorist organisation in April as part of its “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. President Donald Trump has imposed swingeing sanctions on the Islamic republic and vowed to cut its oil exports to zero since he unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers in 2015.

Gibraltar’s authorities said Washington’s request to seize the Grace 1 related to the US’s punitive measures, but said there were no “equivalent sanctions against Iran in Gibraltar”.

The government said it had considered the US’s requests “with great care in order to be able to assist the United States in every way possible”. “EU law, however, does not help in facilitating Gibraltar in giving the US mutual legal assistance,” it added in a statement.

The tanker, renamed and flying an Iranian flag, had remained in Gibraltar until Sunday evening while a new crew was dispatched to man the vessel.

Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, said on Twitter that the ship was expected to leave Gibraltar on Sunday evening following “round-the-clock work since Thursday”.

Iran still holds the Stena Impero and its 23-man crew, which it seized in the Strait of Hormuz, the vital Gulf waterway through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes.

Some Iranian officials said the decision to detain the British-flagged vessel was in retaliation for the impounding of the Grace 1, which Tehran described as an act of piracy.

The UK, which like other European powers does not support Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose fresh sanctions on Iran, has always insisted the two cases were distinct.

British officials ruled out a “barter” for the two vessels and said the Grace 1’s fate would be determined by Gibraltar’s courts. But London had assumed that the Stena Impero would be released once the dispute over the Grace 1 was resolved.

The US intervention complicated the case and created more uncertainty about Grace 1’s future.

Iran has denied that the tanker was headed to Syria, despite Tehran being one of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s main backers during the Arab state’s eight-year civil war.

Rear Adm Hossein Khanzadi, commander of Iran’s conventional navy, said on Sunday that his forces were ready to dispatch a flotilla to ensure the supertanker’s safe passage “if need be and if the country’s leaders ask us”.

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