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UK, Iran Foreign Ministers Discuss Detained Oil Tanker, Jailed Dual Nationals

U.K. -- British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt speaks during a joint press conference at the Foreign Office in central London, May 8, 2019
U.K. -- British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt speaks during a joint press conference at the Foreign Office in central London, May 8, 2019

While Iranian officials continue threatening the United Kingdom with a "response" to the detainment of an Iranian oil tanker at Gibraltar, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says the oil tanker will be released if there if the Islamic Republic provides a guarantee that it will not sail to Syria.

Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 which was detained by Gibraltar authorities on July 4 for violating EU sanctions against Syria was carrying oil from the Iranian port of Assalouyeh to Bonyas refinery in Syria.

Iranian officials including President Hassan Rouhani have threatened that Iran will respond to the British Royal Marines assisting in detaining the Iranian tanker. Other officials such as Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaee (Rezai) have more openly suggested that Iran should seize one of the British oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region.

At least in one suspicious incident three Iranian gunboats tried to stop a British oil tanker in the Gulf, but fled the scene after a British warship lowered its guns and warned them to leave.

The latest threat by Iran came from Tehran's ambassador to London Hamid Baeidinejad who said on Saturday July 13 that the British action will not remain unanswered if the Iranian oil tanker is not released.

Baeidinejad, like several other Iranian officials called the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker an act of piracy.

In the meantime, Iranian officials have said repeatedly that the oil tanker was not going to Syria, but did not say where it was going to deliver its cargo.

Friday night Gibraltar freed the sailors on board the oil tanker after a few days without any charge.

Meanwhile, speaking to Sky News in London, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the United Kingdom does not want to escalate the tensions between Tehran and London.

However, he said that the Iranian oil tanker was detained because it was carrying fuel to Syria, otherwise the detention had nothing to do with Iran.

The spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Britain's action has no legal justification and called for the release of the oil tanker as soon as possible.

This comes while Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said earlier in this week that Iran cannot take any legal action because the oil tanker does not belong to Iran.

Grace 1 was sailing under the flag of Panama when it was detained in Gibraltar on July 4.

In the latest development, Jeremy Hunt told his Iranian counterpart Zarif that the Iranian oil tanker will be released, and that Britain will facilitate its release if its destination was not Syria, semi-official Iranian news agency ISNA reported on Saturday.

Hunt wrote in a tweet on Saturday: "Just spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Constructive call. I reassured him our concern was destination not origin of the oil on Grace One &that UK would facilitate release if we received guarantees that it would not be going to Syria, following due process in Gibraltar courts."

Hunt also took the opportunity to discuss the situation of jailed dual British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe who has been kept in jail in Iran since 2016 for no particular reason.

"Also mentioned our continuing concerns about wrongful imprisonment of Nazanin ZR and other dual nationals and he said he would continue to seek to find a solution," Jeremy Hunt tweeted.

Last week Zarif was the first politician to talk about exchanging Grace 1 with Zaghari, saying that he had not received any suggestion about such an exchange.

If a deal is worked out soon, it will be interpreted in controversial terms. Exchanging a tanker, which was allegedly breaking EU sanctions on Syria with freeing a person imprisoned in Iran on dubious charges, without a fair trial, can be seen yet another win for Iran using prisoners as essentially hostages.

But some can also argue that such a compromise is a good way of deescalating tensions with Iran. Hunt’s involvement in a deal can also have ramifications in the closely fought race for the leadership of Britain’s conservatives and the office of the prime minister.