Authorities in Gibraltar on Thursday said they would release an Iranian-flagged oil tanker, defying a last-minute request by the United States to surrender the vessel to its custody.

“Authorities in Gibraltar have released the Iranian supertanker Grace 1, which was seized on July 4 on suspicion it was shipping 2.1m barrels of crude oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions,” the Gibraltar Chronicle tweeted. 

The paper earlier reported that the territory’s Supreme Court had received a request from the US Department of Justice for “mutual legal assistance in a bid to seize the ship.”

The US request came after National Security Adviser John Bolton was visiting the United Kingdom, which claims Gibraltar as a territory.

But after the court reconvened at 4pm local time, Chief Justice Anthony Dudley revealed his court had not been passed along any official applications from the American authorities, and so had declined to respond.

“She is no longer a specified ship…and no longer subject to detention,” the Gibraltar Chronicle quoted him as saying.

The Iranian government, the paper said, had offered written assurances to Gibraltar authorities that the supertanker would not continue on to Syria after being allowed to set sail.

Sanctions overreach

The fate of the Grace I appears to have exposed limits to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” dragnet.

Initially, it appeared the UK was pursuing an activist interpretation of EU regulations, going out on a limb to seize an Iranian vessel that had veered into the waters of a tiny overseas territory, and on the basis of the rules of a union it has voted to leave.

European Union law does not forbid the export of oil to Syria, nor does it have jurisdiction over Iranian oil sales. In addition, Spain disputes British jurisdiction over Gibraltar. But according to local authorities, the suspected destination of the oil was Syria’s Baniyas refinery, which is blacklisted under EU sanctions.

When the Grace I entered the waters of Gibraltar on July 4, British Royal Marines, acting in cooperation with local law enforcement, seized the ship .

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif quickly blamed the “B team” – his nickname for the hawkish Bolton.

Bolton appeared ecstatic. “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions. America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade,” he tweeted.

But just as suddenly, the tides appeared to turn.

This July 20 screenshot from Fars News Agency shows Iranian navy boats running rings around the UK tanker Stena Impero.

Tides turn

On July 19, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the UK tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, escorting it to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and ignoring radio calls by a British warship to allow it free passage.

The raid itself – videotaped and published by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – showed Balaclava-wearing commandos descending on the British tanker by helicopter. The seizure appeared designed to replicate Britain’s impounding of an Iranian tanker earlier this month.

Asked what the United States would do to help retrieve the vessel of its ally, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to wash his hands of the incident: “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to care of their ships,” he said.

Iran’s senior commanders meanwhile announced the country had officially moved from a position of deterrence to one of calculated confrontation. The statements appeared to enshrine in policy a months-long pattern of tit-for-tat responses against US attempts to choke off Iranian oil exports.

Regional states, which have counted on the US to guarantee Persian Gulf security since the Carter Doctrine of 1980, appeared to quickly absorb the severity of the situation.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-foe, released an Iranian oil tanker which it had been holding for weeks – illegally according to Tehran.

A rattled United Arab Emirates, which saw four tankers damaged off its coast in May, also sought to deescalate the situation, dispatching its coast guard commander on July 30 to Tehran for talks with his counterpart. While the meeting was characterized as “routine,” it had been years since such a public photo-op occurred.

Gibraltar, and by implicit extension the UK, has sent a message to Washington: “Leave us out of your problem with Iran,” said Noam Raydan, a geopolitical analyst at tanker tracker ClipperData.

Burned by the US washing its hands after its own tanker was detained, the UK has taken note.

Releasing Grace I, said Raydan, demonstrates that US allies are less and less willing to do Washington’s work. 

Also read: Trump’s failed Iran policy