Iranian Tanker Leaves Gibraltar Over U.S. Objections

Release from the U.K. territory could pave the way for Tehran to release a British vessel

The Iranian oil tanker previously known as Grace 1 left Gibraltar late Sunday. Photo: jon nazca/Reuters

By Benoit Faucon Aug. 18, 2019

LONDON—The Iranian tanker impounded by Gibraltar sailed out of the British overseas territory on Sunday over the objections of the U.S., a Gibraltar official said, raising hopes that Iran would reciprocate and release a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf.

The ship, renamed the Adrian Darya 1 and given an Iranian flag, left Gibraltar’s waters around 11 p.m. local time after the territory’s Justice Ministry rejected a U.S. Justice Department warrant seeking the seizure of the Iranian vessel and its 2.1 million barrels of crude oil. Gibraltar officials said the territory follows the European Union’s laws, not the U.S.’s.

The U.S. warrant and difficulty finding a crew had delayed the ship’s departure. Gibraltar had already decided to release the ship last week after receiving assurances from Iran that the ship’s oil wouldn’t go to Syria. The EU bans oil exports to Syria as part of a sanctions regime against President Bashar al-Assad, but it doesn’t prohibit Iranian oil sales in general, as the U.S. does.

The Adrian Darya’s release is expected to pave the way for Iran to free the British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, which it captured in the Persian Gulf last month on accusations that it broke international maritime rules.

The U.K. and Iran didn’t say if the release of the Iranian tanker was linked to the British-flagged vessel’s freedom. But Iranian officials have previously indicated such a move would help end the Stena Impero’s detention.

The two tankers have become important pieces in the escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S., and by extension allies and partners like the U.K. and Saudi Arabia. The conflict stems from the American withdrawal from a nuclear deal with Tehran and reimposing sanctions in a bid to force Tehran to pull back militarily and politically in the Middle East.

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Iran has responded this year by reducing its commitments to the nuclear deal still in effect with European countries, Russia and China and downing an American drone over the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. also says Iran has harassed and attacked commercial vessels in the area, which Iran denies.

Gibraltar’s release of the Iranian tanker is a setback for the U.S.’s attempts to enforce American sanctions in international maritime waters.

Since deciding on a total ban on Iran’s crude exports, the Trump administration has put pressure on both Iran’s oil buyers and those providing services to its tankers. American officials say they have succeeded in getting more than 80 Iranian tankers stripped of maritime flags provided by other countries, including the Adrian Darya, previously named the Grace 1, which lost its Panama flag under U.S. pressure, according to a person familiar with the vessel.

But Gibraltar’s decision shows U.S. sanctions aren’t universally accepted. China imported 200,000 barrels a day of Iranian crude in June, according to its customs data.

In the case of the Adrian Darya, the U.S. said the tanker was assisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which it has designated a terrorist organization, by transporting oil from Iran to Syria. As a result, the U.S. would bar its crew members from entry into the U.S.

The Adrian Darya turned off its satellite-tracking systems after leaving Gibraltar, according to FleetMon, the ship-tracking service.

The Iranian tanker is likely to sail to Moroccan waters as its owners hold talks with potential Portuguese and Spanish buyers, a person familiar with its plans said. Iranian-controlled TNC Group, which owns the vessel, couldn’t be reached for comment. Washington bans all purchases of Iran’s crude and has warned any buyer of its oil could be cut off from the U.S. financial system.

A top Iranian commander said the Islamic Republic’s navy would be ready to protect the Adrian Darya if needed, though it had no plans to do so at this stage.

“If top authorities ask the navy, we are ready to escort out tanker Adrian,” Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi was quoted as saying by Mehr news agency.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com



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