A crew member checks the new name of Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya, formerly known as Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar on August 18, 2019. Photo: AFP/Johnny Bugeja

An Iranian supertanker carrying more than 2 million tons of crude oil was back in international waters on Monday after authorities in Gibraltar denied a last-ditch US attempt to stay its course.

The government of Gibraltar, a United Kingdom territory, on Sunday announced it was unable to restrain the vessel’s departure, as requested by the United States, due to “the differences in the sanctions regimes applicable to Iran in the EU and the US.”

The US had argued in a last-ditch effort to seize the tanker that the ship and its cargo was controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran. Washington blacklisted the elite military unit as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran in June, but no other country followed in its designation.

It is to be noted that the IRGC is not a designated foreign terrorist organization in Gibraltar, the UK or in the EU generally, unlike in the US,” a statement by the Gibraltar government said.  

The Grace I, renamed as the Adrian Darya, set sail about 11:30pm Sunday night, headed east on the Mediterranean Sea. The Iranian ambassador to the UK hailed the move, coming after 45 days of negotiations and legal challenges. 

The US State Department in the immediate aftermath turned its attention to the vessel’s crew, threatening they could be ineligible for visas in the future.

Now what?

The Adrian Darya appeared headed in the direction of Greece after its release, though it was unclear where it might find a friendly port of call under the circumstances.

The United States has imposed far-reaching sanctions on Iranian petroleum exports, and will likely keep a close eye on the ship’s ports of calls and which countries harbor it.

The vessel could possibly dock in Turkey, which has continued to import Iranian crude after the expiration of a sanctions waiver on May 1, said Giorgios Beleris of global energy commodities tracker Refinitiv.

“We have tracked 2 million bbl in July [and] 2.5 million bbl in June,” the Dubai-based Oil Research Manager told Asia Times.

It is highly unlikely the Iranian-flagged vessel would continue on to the port of Tartus on the Syrian coast, which is controlled by the allied government of Bashar al-Assad.

The basis for the supertanker’s July 4 seizure by Gibraltar police in concert with British Royal Marines was the suspicion its oil cargo would be delivered to Syria’s Baniyas Refinery, part of a list of entities under European Union sanctions.

The vessel was only released after Gibraltar authorities received written assurances from their Iranian counterparts that it would not continue on to Syria.

Other possible destinations are the Persian Gulf via the Suez Canal, or on to China, Beleris said.

Limits of empire

While the US tracks the Adrian Darya, Iran’s European partners will be watching the fate of Stena Impero – the UK tanker impounded by Iran in July in what was largely seen as a tit-for-tat measure.

The vessel has been held since July 19, when Balaclava-wearing IRGC commandos descended on the British tanker by helicopter – in a scene mirroring the seizure of its own tanker two weeks earlier. 

The UK quickly looked to defuse the crisis, which threatened to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of the world’s seaborne oil passes.

Its willingness to negotiate with Iran was likely informed by the reaction of its ally, the United States, whose top diplomat Mike Pompeo said: “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to care of their ships.”

The idea that Iran could release the Stena Impero in exchange for the release of its own supertanker was floated late last month by none other than the father of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Speaking in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff interview with Iranian state television on July 28, Stanley Johnson suggested the two nations could resolve their tanker crisis with a swap.

“I think the best thing would be to say, look, we let your ship go you let our ship go,” he told Press TV. “Easy peasy.”

Read more: Gibraltar defies US

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