The shipping agent for an oil tanker caught in a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the West said the vessel is ready to depart Gibraltar in “24 to 48 hours,” despite a last-minute effort by the United States to seize it again.
Richard de la Rosa, the managing director of Astralship, said Saturday that logistical preparations are underway and that a new crew of Indian and Ukrainian nationals is expected to take command of the ship, which is carrying 2.1 million tons of Iranian oil.
The Grace 1 was seized by British Royal Marines at the western mouth of the Mediterranean on July 4 on suspicion of violating European Union sanctions by taking oil to Syria, which Iran has denied.
On Thursday a Gibraltar judge ordered the release of the vessel, rejecting a last-minute legal move by Washington demanding that the ship remain detained.
But on Friday, the US Justice Department issued a warrant for the seizure of the supertanker.
The Justice Department alleged the ship was part of a scheme "to unlawfully access the US financial system to support illicit shipments to Syria from Iran by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps," which the US has designated a foreign terrorist organization.
“The scheme involves multiple parties affiliated with the IRGC and furthered by the deceptive voyages of the Grace 1,” the US attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie Liu, said in a news release. “A network of front companies allegedly laundered millions of dollars in support of such shipments.”
The warrant says the vessel and all the oil aboard are subject to forfeiture based on violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, as well as bank fraud, money laundering, and terrorism statutes.
It also ordered the seizure of $995,000 in an account at an unnamed US bank associated with Paradise Global Trading LLC, which it called a shell company associated with businesses which act for the IRGC.
The supertanker shifted position on Friday, but its anchor was still down off Gibraltar.
The Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper reported that the vessel was unlikely to sail before today, citing an unnamed source who added that it was waiting for six new crew members including a captain to arrive that day.
A lawyer for the Grace 1’s current captain also told the newspaper that his client had asked to be replaced.
The vessel had appeared to be moving and more smoke could be seen coming from the funnel than in recent days.
Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, said earlier that the tanker was free to leave as soon as it had organized its logistics.
The July 4 seizure came amid surging tensions in the Persian Gulf. The US – citing threats from Iran to American allies – expanded its military presence in the region with a new aircraft carrier task force, missile batteries and strategic bombers.
Iran called the detention of the Grace 1 an "illegal interception" staged by the United States, while Washington cheered it as "excellent news."
Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since US President Donald Trump withdrew last year from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran, reimposing unilateral sanctions.
In the wake of Grace 1's detention, on July 19 Iran seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz.
Tehran said the ship was in violation of "international maritime rules," but the move was seen as retaliation for the Grace 1.
Ship to get new crew
Thursday's release of the Grace 1 came after Gibraltar's government said it had received written assurances from Iran that the ship would not be headed for countries "subject to European Union sanctions."
Iran denied Friday it had made any promises about the ship's destination to secure the release, saying Gibraltar was only seeking to "save face."
"Iran has given no assurances over the Grace 1 not going to Syria to secure its release," Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said.
"The tanker's destination was not Syria... and even if it was, it did not concern anyone else."
The US-issued seizure warrant would require Britain to decide whether to act again to detain the vessel, and it was not clear if that would happen.
Earlier Friday, Iranian officials said the tanker was preparing to set sail under an Iranian flag and would be renamed the Adrian Darya for the voyage.
“Based on the owner’s request, the oil tanker Grace 1 will depart for the Mediterranean after being reflagged under the Iranian flag and renamed Adrian Darya after preparing for the journey,” Jalil Eslami, the deputy head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization, said.
On Friday afternoon a Spanish Civil Guard boat briefly stood close to the tanker with police officers taking pictures. It was closely followed by a Royal Navy boat.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the US attempt at "piracy" had failed, saying it showed Washington's "contempt for the law."
AP, AFP and Reuters contributed to this story.