Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused Britain of “theft” and “piracy” over the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, saying Iran would “not leave such evil deeds unanswered.”
The comments came during a televised address, as concerns grew about a UAE-based Gulf oil tanker, the MT Riah, which went missing in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday.
A US defence official said on Tuesday the US “has suspicions” the tanker has been seized by Iran, saying it disappeared near Qeshm, an island with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base.
Tensions between Iran and the UK have escalated since the Iranian Grace 1 oil tanker was seized by British Royal Marines earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar.
The supertanker, which was carrying 2.1m barrels of light crude oil, was detained on suspicion of violating EU sanctions by transporting the oil to Syria.
Iranian officials have accused Britain of acting on behalf of the US in seizing the tanker.
Analysts say whether or not there was collusion, the move was certainly designed to appease the Trump administration while European leaders attempt to salvage the struggling nuclear deal.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has insisted the seizure of the tanker had nothing to do with the oil being from Iran.
He had offered on Saturday to arrange the tanker’s release if Iran provides guarantees that the cargo is not bound for Syria.
The Royal Navy has announced it will send a third warship, the HMS Kent, and a tanker, the HMS Wave Knight, to the Gulf but stressed the deployment had long been planned and was not a reaction to recent events.
The Ayatollah’s remarks are likely to be rhetorical for now, says Sahil Shah, an Iran specialist at the European Leadership Network.
“This language isn’t any stronger than anything they’ve said before,“ he said. ”But there are multiple flash-points across the region, both on land and water, through which Iran could raise the temperature on both the Americans and the Europeans.”
After several weeks of rising tensions between Iran and the US, Tehran hopes to leverage European fears over the deal falling apart to encourage European leaders to oppose what Iranian officials see as sanctions overreach by the US and EU.
“While oil supply is not tied to the [nuclear deal] per se, the threat is also meant to play into the EU fear about regional instability if the [deal] falls apart, part of an effort to force the EU to violate US sanctions, for instance on oil sales,” Amir Toumaj, an independent Iran analyst, told The Telegraph.
Tehran announced last week its uranium enrichment level has surpassed the 3.67 per cent level imposed by the deal, but experts say the increase is marginal.
Iranian officials have given the EU a September deadline to offer a sufficient easing of economic sanctions to convince it to continue abiding by the terms of the deal, in what many see as a last chance to calm tensions.