The fate of an Iranian oil tanker set to be released by Gibraltar is unclear after the U.S. Department of Justice made a last-minute attempt to seize the vessel at the heart of a standoff between Tehran and London.
Several media outlets including CNN, Reuters, and the Gibraltar Chronicle, reported the U.S. move at a Gibraltar Supreme Court hearing on August 15 where justices were reviewing the current detention order on the Grace 1 supertanker, which is set to expire on the evening of August 17.
"The U.S. Department of Justice has applied to seize the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 in Gibraltar, just hours before the Gibraltar government was poised to release it," the Chronicle newspaper reported, adding that the court's chief justice, Anthony Dudley, said that if not for the U.S. move, "the ship would have sailed."
On July 4, authorities in Gibraltar seized the vessel with the help of British Royal Marines. The Grace 1 was carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil and authorities alleged that it was in violation of European Union sanctions on Syria.
Iran says the tanker was in international waters and was not headed to Syria.
In response to the Iranian ship's seizure, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on July 19 captured the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero close to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman.
Tehran said the vessel was "violating international maritime rules," while the British authorities called the seizure "state piracy."
Gibraltar will also have to decide on the fate of four crew members of the Grace 1 who were detained shortly after the ship was seized. None of the four have been charged with any offense.
There has been speculation in recent days that Gibraltar authorities will soon release the Iranian tanker.
Details of the U.S. application to block the release were not released, but the move means that a decision on the ship's fate will not be made until later in the day, when the court reconvenes at 1400 GMT/UTC.
The Justice Department didn't comment on the report.
On August 13, the deputy head of Iran's port authority, Jalil Eslami, said that Britain was thinking of freeing the Grace 1 following an exchange of documents.
"We hope the release will take place soon," Eslami said in comments reported by state news agency IRNA.
A spokesman for the Gibraltar government said it was seeking to "deescalate issues arising since the lawful detention of Grace 1."
The spat between Tehran and London came amid rising tensions in the Persian Gulf after the United States last year withdrew from the 2015 deal between world powers and Tehran.
Washington has appealed to its partners to help create a maritime security mission to help safeguard shipping and other interests in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier, Britain said it was joining the U.S.-initiated task force to escort ships through and around the region, though some other European powers, most notably Germany, have rejected the idea, fearing the United States will use the force as part of its "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.
The captain and three officers from the Grace 1 have already been released from arrest.