Iran has said it will free seven crew members of a British-flagged tanker seized in the strait of Hormuz in July, as the country’s president gave Europe a two-month deadline to save its nuclear deal.
The seven, who are part of a 23-member crew comprising Indian, Russian, Latvia and Filipino nationals, were allowed to leave the Stena Impero tanker on humanitarian grounds and will be able to leave Iran soon, Iranian state television reported. The vessel’s owner said it had yet to receive any official confirmation of the release date.
The Swedish-owned tanker was detained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on 19 July, two weeks after Britain detained an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. That vessel was released in August.
“We have no problem with the crew and the captain and the issue is violations that the vessel committed,” an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, told the television station.
Responding to the announcement, Erik Hanell, Stena Bulk’s president and chief executive, said: “We are very pleased that for seven crew members their ordeal may soon be over and they may return to their families. However, we cautiously await official confirmation of their release date.
“We view this communication as a positive step on the way to the release of all the remaining crew, which has always been our primary concern and focus.” The company said the remaining 16 crew members would remain onboard to safely operate the vessel.
The announcement came as Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani,said that “extraordinary” steps away from the deal, expected to be revealed this week, would not take effect until later in the year.
French and Iranian diplomats have been holding talks on the future of the deal, which is at risk of unravelling since the US withdrew last year, with a focus on setting up a four-month $15bn (£12.3bn) credit line as a prepayment for Iranian oil sales.
Rouhani said insufficient progress had been made for a deal to be reached ahead of a deadline on Wednesday or Thursday for Iran to announce fresh breaches of the nuclear accord, but the steps would be implemented in two months’ time.
Iran has so far reduced its commitments under the deal in two respects: increasing its uranium stockpiles and declaring it would enrich uranium above the 3.67% limit.
The next step is believed to focus on research and development. “The third step will be the most important one and it will have extraordinary huge effects,” Rouhani said.
He said the number of disagreements in the talks between Iran and Europe might have been reduced from 20 to three, but that did not mean the talks had reached a conclusion. “Europe has another two-month deadline for negotiations, agreement, and a return to its commitments,” he said.
The deal with the west was brokered in 2015 and included Iran agreeing to limit its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions, in particular on oil exports. But after Donald Trump withdrew the US and reimposed sanctions, Tehran has threatened the deal’s future if European countries cannot come up with a solution for Iran to sell its oil abroad.
US sanctions sent Iran’s economy into freefall as tensions have also risen in the Gulf.
The Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesman said the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, was in the US to try to gain US support for the French plan for a credit line, but he thought that would not come in time for the Iranian deadline.
The US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, did not rule out the Macron plan, saying the US was studying the credit line proposal. He said US policy remained one of maximum economic pressure on Iran, but “it is up to the president at his discretion whether to dial the pressure up or down”.
If the Macron plan won US support, Iran might be able sell at least 700,000 barrels of oil a day, more than double its current exports.
The French president is trying to engineer a new stage-by-stage agreement that does not replace the 2015 nuclear deal but supplements it and has made intense efforts to draw Trump into his mediation efforts.
Similar efforts were made by France before Trump pulled out of the deal in May 2018, but they failed to persuade the US president that the deal was salvageable.
Macron has been warning the Iranians not to take fresh steps away from the deal, saying it would send the wrong signal.
Rouhani claimed there was a conflict within the US on how to proceed. “Hardliners, neocons and racists in the US do not want the relationship between Iran and the US to be right – whenever we move forward, they spoil it,” he said. “The US exit from the nuclear deal was the result of this triangle of radicalism inside the White House.”