U.S. Power to Seize Oiler Grace 1, Now Under Iranian Flag, Is Limited by International Law

August 29, 2019 12:37 PM

As the Adrian Darya 1, formerly the Grace 1, meanders across the Mediterranean Sea, the world is monitoring closely to see where she finally stops to discharge the over two million barrels of Iranian crude oil onboard. Any country or entity aiding the vessel will be deemed by the United States as assisting a foreign terrorist organization.

The tanker Grace 1 was boarded in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar by the British Royal Navy on July 4 as it passed through Gibraltar’s territorial waters. It was detained on suspicion that it was delivering Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Although flying a Panamanian flag when detained in Gibraltar, Panama stated that it had revoked the Grace 1’s registration over a month prior as part of its policy to remove vessels believed to be involved in sanctions violations.

Iran spoke up for the vessel, denying the Grace 1 was bound for Syria, even though the investigation revealed the vessel had planned a voyage to Syria and daily vessel reports and crew communications stated the vessel’s destination was Syria.

Shortly after the July 4 detention, Iran seized the British flag tanker Stena Imperio on allegations of multiple regulatory violations. The owners of the Stena Imperio deny any violations.

Gibraltar released the Grace 1 on August 15 in spite of a request by the United States to seize the vessel. Gibraltar’s chief minister stated that Iran had provided assurance that the vessel would not deliver the oil to Syria when released and so there was no longer grounds for detention.

The Grace 1 was renamed and reflagged under the Islamic Republic of Iran as the vessel prepared to depart Gibraltar.

The Unites States’ attempt to seize the Grace 1 echoes the recent U.S. seizure of the North Korean bulk carrier Wise Honest. The Wise Honest had been detained in April 2018 by Indonesia for multiple violations of international law and sanctions.

The United States claimed that both the Wise Honest and Grace 1 should be forfeited to the United States government under U.S. forfeiture laws for U.S. sanctions violations and fraud. The United States asserts that the Grace 1 is ultimately owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the United Stated deemed a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019. The European Union has not similarly deemed the IRGC a terrorist organization.

Under the law of the sea, the United States generally does not have the authority in peacetime to seize a vessel on the high seas or in the waters of another country. Countries may only enforce their laws within their waters, with the exception of vessels flying their flag, which they have authority over anywhere in the world. The United States must either wait until the vessel enters U.S. waters, which would likely never happen, or convince another country to recognize and enforce the warrant.

The effort was successful for Wise Honest because Indonesia chose to assist the United States. The U.S. Marshals Service listed the Wise Honest for sale earlier this month.

Gibraltar did not agree to assist the United States in enforcing the warrant. It has been speculated that the Grace 1 was released in hopes of the release of the Stena Imperio, which is still being held by Iran.

Iran announced this week that the oil aboard the Adrian Darya 1 has been sold to an unnamed buyer and is bound for the buyer’s destination of choice. As the ship travels to an unknown port, the United States has warned that any services provided to the vessel would be considered providing support to a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization.

Absent help from another country that is able to assert jurisdiction over the vessel and is willing to assist the United States in enforcing U.S. sanctions against Iran, in these circumstances the United States will be unable seize the vessel under international law.

Dana Merkel

Dana Merkel

Dana Merkel is a maritime lawyer at the law firm of Blank-Rome LLP. Blank-Rome is legal counsel for the U.S. Naval Institute.

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