US issues warrant for Iranian tanker released by Gibraltar

US issues warrant for Iranian tanker released by Gibraltar
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The Justice Department unsealed a warrant Friday for the seizure of an Iranian tanker accused of smuggling oil to Syria.

The tanker, called the Grace 1, had been held in Gibraltar since early July on allegations of violating European Union sanctions, but authorities there approved its release Thursday despite a last-minute U.S. application to block the release.

Officials in Gibraltar said they approved the release after receiving written assurances from Iran that the ship’s destination will not be Syria.

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The warrant unsealed Friday says the Grace 1, all petroleum aboard the ship and $995,000 are subject to forfeiture.

A Justice Department complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia says a confidential source revealed that the Grace 1’s destination prior to being detained was Syria.

After its detention, charts discovered onboard, WhatsApp messages from crewmembers' mobile devices and crewmembers' statements revealed the ship was headed to Port Banias, Syria, in violation of U.S. sanctions, the complaint added.

The complaint alleges the Grace 1 was used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a broader scheme to illicitly ship oil to Syria.

“Law enforcement has also discovered that, in addition to transferring Iranian petroleum, the Grace 1 used fraudulent documents when conducting this activity,” the complaint said. “Moreover, financial records show that U.S. dollar wires were sent through the United States financial system for the benefit of the Grace 1 near the time of illicit transfers by the Grace 1. This scheme was designed to benefit the IRGC, as it ultimately controls the Grace 1.”

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Among the illicit activity the Justice Department alleges the Grace 1 was involved in, the complaint says the ship turned off its transponder to conceal its location, engaged in ship-to-ship transfers and had fraudulent documents saying its oil was from Iraq.

The complaint also alleges money laundering through multiple intermediaries to access the U.S. financial system.

“Multiple companies engaged in multiple financial transactions related to the Grace 1's recent illegal shipment of Iranian oil through the U.S. financial system,” the complaint says. “Specifically, the companies involved with these transactions were used as intermediaries to avoid listing the ultimate senders and beneficiaries on these U.S. dollar transactions.”

Reuters reported Friday that while the Grace 1 has “shifted position,” it has not yet left the British territory of Gibraltar.

The detention of the Grace 1 in early July was a key flashpoint in escalating tensions with Iran.

Iran slammed the detention as an act of “piracy” and accused Britain of acting on behalf of the United States.

A couple weeks later, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz in what was widely seen as retaliation for the Grace 1.

The ship seizures added to already heightened tensions stemming from the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions on Iran and the country's decision to breech two key limits of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The back-and-forth between the United States and Iran over the past few months has included Tehran shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone, President Trump coming within minutes of launching a military strike on Iran, the U.S. military downing an Iranian drone and attacks on oil tankers near the Gulf that the United States has blamed on Iran.