Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

Britain wants assurances before releasing Iranian oil tanker, Jeremy Hunt says

Foreign secretary says he told his Iranian counterpart by phone that Britain will need guarantees that cargo would not go to Syria

Britain would be willing to release a loaded Iranian oil tanker seized off the coast of Gibraltar this month if Iran can guarantee that its cargo would not go to Syria, Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said on Saturday.

Mr Hunt said he had had a “constructive” phone call with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and told him that the UK would facilitate the release of the tanker “following due process” in Gibraltar’s courts.

“Today I reiterated in my conversation with Foreign Minister Zarif that Gibraltar’s decision to detain the Grace 1 related to the destination of the vessel, and not to its origin,” Mr Hunt said in a statement issued by Britain’s Foreign Office on Saturday.

“This was about the enforcement of EU Syria sanctions: action was taken because of where the oil was going – a sanctioned Syrian entity – not because it was from Iran.”

The tanker was seized on July 4 by British Royal Marines off the coast of the British Mediterranean territory on suspicion of violating sanctions against the Assad regime.

Iran has demanded Britain release the ship and denies it was taking oil to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions.

Mr Hunt’s talks with Mr Zarif come only days after Britain said Iranian boats attempted to block a UK-owned tanker sailing through the Strait of Hormuz before being deterred by a British warship. The confrontation prompted Britain to deploy a destroyer to the Arabian Gulf to help protect shipping.

The British foreign secretary said on Saturday that his Iranian counterpart had told him that Iran wanted to resolve the issue and was not seeking to escalate tensions.

“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,” Mr Hunt wrote on Twitter.

Tehran blames the United States for arranging the seizure of the tanker. Washington has imposed sanctions on Iran with the aim of halting Iranian oil exports.

The move is part of a US policy of applying “maximum pressure” to force Iran to halt it ballistic missile development and destabilising activities in the Middle East.

Both factors were cited by President Donald Trump when he pulled out of the 2015 deal between Iran and world powers that offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

European countries do not have sanctions against Iran, but have had them in place against its ally Syria since 2011.

Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the territory’s parliament on Friday that the decision to detain the tanker, which he said was carrying 2.1 million barrels of oil, had not been taken at the request of any other country.

Britain’s foreign secretary said he had spoken to Mr Picardo to discuss the tanker situation.

“The detention and investigation of the Grace 1 has been – and continues to be – a Government of Gibraltar-led operation to uphold EU sanctions on Syria,” he said.

Mr Hunt said he had also raised the Britain’s concerns about the wrongful imprisonment of Nazanin Zatgari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen who has been detained in Iran since 2016. Mr Zarif told him “he would continue to seek to find a solution”, he said.

Iranian news agencies reported on Saturday that Mr Zarif was travelling to New York for a meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council.

Iran has rejected US offers to hold talks on a new nuclear deal, saying it would not negotiate under pressure.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremey Hunt said he spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by phone on Saturday. AFP
British Foreign Secretary Jeremey Hunt said he spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by phone on Saturday. AFP

The European Union’s foreign policy chief on Saturday offered the bloc’s backing for Iraq’s proposal to hold a regional conference to address the concerns over rising tensions in the region resulting from the stand-off.

Federica Mogherini, on her first to Iraq visit since 2014, said the EU shared with Iraq the approach to dealing with the difficult situation. She said the priority was to avoid escalation and any miscalculations that could lead to “dangerous consequences” for Iraq and beyond.

Iraq, as an ally of Iran and the US, has offered to mediate between Tehran and Washington, while Iran has pressed European parties to the nuclear agreement to offset the effects of US sanctions.

She said the EU was ready to support the regional conference idea “in all ways that could be useful”.

Updated: July 14, 2019 01:43 PM

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