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Greek court ruling lifts hopes for release of tankers

Iran expects return of confiscated cargo from Greece

Situation said to remain ‘tense’ but owners affirm that 49 seafarers held off Bandar Abbas are in good health

HOPES for the release of two Greek tankers and their crews being held by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Middle East Gulf have been lifted by a Greek court decision that has overturned an earlier ruling allowing the US to confiscate an Iranian oil cargo snared in the Aegean.

The two suezmaxes were boarded on May 27 in international waters and subsequently escorted to Iranian waters in retaliation for the seizure of the 107,000 tonnes of Iranian crude aboard the Russia-flagged tanker Lana (IMO: 9256860).

A Greek district court in Chalkida upheld the US application to confiscate the aframax cargo on the basis that it is sanctioned. However, this ruling was reversed by an appeals court on June 8 after an application by the Iranians.

The appeal decision is the latest twist in what has become an international incident with potentially far-reaching implications for relations between the various actors, and on talks to resurrect a 2015 nuclear agreement that could restore legitimacy to the Iranian oil trade.

Following the appeal ruling, the Iranian embassy in Athens tweeted: “By God’s grace, the entire oil shipment will be returned.”

It noted that there remained “intensive consultations between the two countries to ensure full implementation of the ruling. Protecting the rights of the Iranian people is our red line.”

The new development has stoked optimism at the offices of the shipping companies that have been sweating on the fate of their ships.

Satellite pictures show both Greece-flagged suezmaxes — Delta Tankers’ vessel Delta Poseidon (IMO: 9468671) and Polembros Shipping’s Prudent Warrior (IMO: 9753545)  — anchored off the main Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. A total of 49 seafarers are on board, including 10 Greeks, one Cypriot and 38 Filipinos.

“It is very good news, obviously,” said Polembros managing director George Vakirtzis. “I hope we are now on the right track, but it is an unpredictable situation and even if things go well it may take more than just a few days to solve.”

A source close to Delta Tankers also welcomed the legal twist, saying that “with common sense there should no longer be a reason to hold us any longer”.

On June 4, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the Lana case amounted to the Greek government stealing his country’s oil. “Taking back something that had been stolen is not an act of theft,” he said.

Both Greek shipping companies have remained tight-lipped about conditions on board their vessels, which are under armed guard. However, both confirmed to Lloyd’s List that their crews are in good health.

The incident has threatened to drag Greece into a diplomatic mire and raise security concerns over the safety of the Greek-owned tanker fleet, the world’s largest. Greek-owned tankers are passing through the Strait of Hormuz on a daily basis.

While Iran’s actions have been roundly condemned in Athens and other western capitals, Greek shipping minister Ioannis Plakiotakis has also pledged that the government is doing everything in its power to gain the release of the vessels and crewmen.

In recent days it has become apparent that Athens has been playing for time as the first of two planned ship-to-ship transfers took place off the Greek island of Evia.

The first of two Dynacom Tankers-operated panamaxes, Ice Energy (IMO: 9301732), loaded about half of the Lana’s cargo for transportation to New York only to be detained by port state control inspectors after calling in Piraeus for bunkers.

Dynacom boss George Prokopiou has claimed that the detention was “100% political” and the grounds cited for holding the vessel “ridiculous”.

But he added that Ice Victory (IMO: 9301744), the second tanker due to load the remainder of the Lana’s cargo, would not do so “unless this issue is resolved.”

The appeal court ruling also requires the oil that has so been taken off Lana to be returned to the Russia-flagged tanker.

One source close to the imbroglio told Lloyd’s List: “The first priority [for Greece] was to stop the cargo leaving for the US, which has been done. Now it has to be put back.

“The only way out of the dilemma, which the Americans would accept, would be for a court decision to stop the seizure of the cargo. But we are talking not only about cargo confiscation here, we are talking about the lives of 50 seafarers and I think when that is put in the balance there has been a rethink.

“Even with all this, it may take several weeks for the matter to be resolved. Everyone is very tense.”

Greek government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said the behaviour of Iranian forces in connection with the tankers was “totally unjustified and unprovoked’’.

However, he claimed that in the eyes of the government the two incidents were unconnected and that there had been no political interference behind the appeal court ruling.

“Justice in our country has proven that it operates independently.”

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