GIBRALTAR -- The captain of an Iranian supertanker at the center of a diplomatic standoff no longer wants to keep command of the ship, which is in need of repairs that could impede its immediate departure from Gibraltar, the sailor's lawyer said Friday.
Any delay of the Grace 1's departure could provide a window of opportunity for the U.S. to mount further legal action and try to again stop the tanker amid a growing confrontation with Tehran.
U.S. authorities announced in Washington late Friday afternoon that they had obtained a warrant to seize the tanker, though Gibraltar court officials said they had not received any claim by the end of the business day in the British overseas territory. It wasn't immediately clear if the U.S. had forwarded the warrant.
The tanker -- and its 2.1 million tons of Iranian light crude oil -- seemed to perform mild maneuvers on Friday but largely remained still, shrouded in heavy fog in waters off the British overseas territory a day after authorities ended its detention for allegedly breaching European Union sanctions on Syria.
The release Thursday came over the objections of the United States. The head of the Gibraltar government said Iran had promised him not to deliver the fuel to a sanctioned refinery in Syrian territory, although an Iranian official later disputed that those assurances had been delivered.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have escalated since President Donald Trump last year unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and other world powers.
The decision re-imposed sanctions on Iran, stopping billions of dollars in business deals, largely halting the sale of Iran's crude oil internationally and sharply depreciating Iran's currency, the rial. More recently, the Persian Gulf has seen attacks on oil tankers and other high-stakes confrontations.
In early July, Tehran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in apparent retaliation for the detention of the Grace 1.
A lawyer representing three Grace 1 crew members who were released from detention on Thursday cast doubts on the Grace 1's immediate departure.
Richard Wilkinson told The Associated Press that the Indian national who commanded the oil tanker until it was detained in early July had asked his Iranian employers to replace him.
"He doesn't want to stay in command of the ship, he wants to go home, because he wasn't happy to go back and pick up the broken pieces," said Wilkinson. "But he's a professional skipper and needs to wait for a new crew to do a proper handover."
The lawyer said the tanker had been due for repairs in Gibraltar even before it was seized, which impeded the replacement of certain parts, making the tanker unfit for an immediate long voyage.
Adding to the uncertainty, the next possible destination of the cargo became a point of contention as Iranian and Gibraltar authorities showed disagreement over the terms that led to the ship's release.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi on Friday said the country had made no commitments to gain the release of its tanker.
The captors of the vessel "raised the issue of commitment in a bid to make up for their humiliation caused by this illegal act and piracy," Mousavi said, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
In response, the Gibraltar government issued a statement saying that "the evidence is clear and the facts speak louder than the self-serving political statements we are hearing today."
On Friday, the U.S. government said it had obtained a warrant to seize the tanker, citing violations of U.S. sanctions, as well as money-laundering and terrorism statutes. The U.S. is seeking to take control of the tanker as well as all of the petroleum aboard it and $995,000.
In court documents unsealed in Washington, the U.S. alleges a complex scheme to unlawfully access the U.S. financial system in order to support shipments to Syria by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
A senior administration official said that even if Gibraltar authorities don't think the filing warrants further detention of the vessel, no matter where it goes, "our actions are going to follow it like a cloud." The official said that includes crew members, owners and "anyone who touches this ship in any way."
The Justice Department's action comes after the U.S. State Department warned that anyone assisting the Grace 1 may not be eligible for visas or for admission into the United States.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker, Kevin Freking, Danica Kirka and Amir Vahdat of The Associated Press.
A Section on 08/17/2019
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