Iran Ups the Ante for War

Iran stokes Gulf tensions by seizing two British-linked oil tankers

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says actions of Iranian forces in strait of Hormuz are ‘unacceptable’

Fri 19 Jul 2019 17.17 EDT

Iran seized two oil tankers – one registered in the UK, the other in Liberia – in the strait of Hormuz on Friday, marking a dramatic escalation in the worsening standoff in the Gulf.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed to have taken the British-flagged Stena Impero into port, and Iranian officials claimed it had drifted out of shipping lane and turned its satellite locator off.

A second tanker, the Mesdarg, which is Liberian-flagged but owned and operated by Glasgow-based firm Norbulk, also made a sudden diversion from its course towards the Saudi port of Ras Tanura on Friday, and tracking data showed it moving northwards towards the Iranian coast before apparently turning off its tracking signal.

Less than two hours later, the Mesdar’s tracking signal was turned back on. Fars, the semi-official Iranian news agency, reported that the Mesdar was briefly detained in the strait of Hormuz and given a notice to comply with environmental regulations before being allowed to continue on its way.

Norbulk Shipping UK confirmed that the Mesdar had been boarded by armed guards at around 5.30pm on Friday: “Communication has been re-established with the vessel and the master confirmed that the armed guards have left and the vessel is free to continue the voyage. All crew are safe and well.”

Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said he was “extremely concerned” at the seizure of the ships. He said the Cobra emergency response committee would be meeting “to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels”.

“Their crews comprise a range of nationalities, but we understand there are no British citizens on board either ship,” Hunt said. “Our ambassador in Tehran is in contact with the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs to resolve the situation and we are working closely with international partners.

“These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.”

The UK Ministry of Defence stressed that it had ships in the area, but could not provide any further details of what had happened.

Donald Trump, the US president, said on Friday night that the US would talk to Britain about the seizures.

The owners of the Stena Impero issued a statement saying that at 3pm GMT (7pm local time), the ship had been “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”. “We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran,” Stena Bulk and the ship’s managers, Northern Marine, said.

The Revolutionary Guards said they had seized the Stena Impero, citing international maritime law for their actions. Iran Front Page quoted an unnamed military source as saying the tanker had been “crossing a route other than the shipping lane in the strait of Hormuz, had switched off its transponders and did not pay any attention to Iran’s warnings when it was seized by the [Revolutionary Guard] forces”.

Iran had been complaining bitterly about the detention by UK forces of an Iranian tanker two weeks ago off Gibraltar. The seizure of the tankers came hours after authorities in Gibraltar announced that they were extending their custody of the Iranian tanker, the Grace 1. Tehran denounced the detention of the Grace 1 as piracy carried out on orders from Washington. The Grace 1 was seized by Britain’s Royal Marines on 4 July, on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria, in violation of an EU embargo.

Iranian politicians have been calling for reprisals and the country’s forces, led by the Revolutionary Guards, are being increasingly aggressive in disrupting shipping lanes in the Gulf. Iranian officials have said that if Iran is not to be allowed to export its oil, it should not be expected to safeguard the free flow of oil from other Gulf states.

The Stena Impero, a 30,000-tonne British-flagged and Swedish-owned ship, was heading for Saudi Arabia when it abruptly left the international sea lanes through the strait of Hormuz, and tracking data showed it heading north towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, where the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has a substantial base.

“We are aware of reports that Iranian forces seized a British oil tanker,” the chief spokesman for the US national security council, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement. “This is the second time in just over a week the UK has been the target of escalatory violence by the Iranian regime.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard made an initial attempt to capture a British tanker six days after the Grace 1 was first seized. On 10 July, a British warship, the HMS Montrose, intervened to drive off three Iranian military vessels that were attempting to divert a UK tanker, the British Heritage, towards Iranian territory.

The incidents come amid a battle of nerves along the oil export routes of the Gulf, which has involved close encounters between, Iranian, UK and US military forces.

Earlier on Friday, Tehran denied Trump’s claim that US forces had downed a Iranian drone over the Gulf. Iran’s top military spokesman said all drones had returned safely to base, but Trump was adamant. “No doubt about it … we shot it down,” the US president said.

Trump said on Thursday that the USS Boxer took defensive action after the unmanned vehicle came within 1,000 yards of the warship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.

The prospect of negotiations that might defuse the standoff appeared more distant than ever on Friday as a senior US official dismissed a nuclear offer proposed the previous day by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, during a visit to New York. The official suggested the offer was not serious and called for “an actual decision-maker” to enter talks to “end Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions”.

Trump has vacillated on what he wants Iran to do in return for a lifting of the oil and banking embargo that the US has imposed since walking out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in May last year. The sharp response to Zarif’s offer suggests that administration hardliners, led by the national security adviser, John Bolton, are currently running Iran policy.

Zarif proposed that Iran’s parliament immediately ratify acceptance of a permanent regime of intrusive international inspections, known as the Additional Protocol, designed to ensure that Iran was not building nuclear weapons covertly. Iran is currently observing the protocol under the terms of the JCPOA, and was due to ratify it, cementing it into law, in October 2023.

Q&A

What is the Iran nuclear deal?

Zarif offered to bring that arrangement forward by more than four years in return for immediate sanctions relief. The offer was never likely to be accepted – the US has an expansive list of demands concerning Iran’s activities – but it did signal a willingness to do a deal with Washington outside the framework of the JCPOA. The US reaction, however, was scathing.

“The president has repeatedly said he is willing to have a conversation with Iranian leaders. If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately and having an actual decision-maker attempt to negotiate a deal that includes a permanent end to Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles,” a senior administration official said.

Iran has consistently refused to give up uranium enrichment, which can be for both civilian and military purposes. Efforts by previous US administrations to stop it led to an exponential expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity. The JCPOA accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium, but imposed strict upper limits on its purity and other elements of the nuclear programme in return for sanction relief.

With the negotiating gap between Washington and Tehran as wide as ever, the contest between the two countries has shifted increasingly to the Gulf.

The Gibraltar supreme court’s extended the detention of the Grace 1 at a hearing on Friday after Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, held talks with Iranian officials at the Foreign Office in London on Thursday. Picardo also held talks with Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary.

The UK has been seeking legal assurances that the tanker, if released, will not travel to Syria to unload 2.1m barrels of oil if released, as it was suspected of attempting when detained.

Tehran says it is not party to an EU embargo and insists that the ship was not bound for Syria. Zarif, who was in New York on Thursday, has refused to disclose another destination for the ship, saying it was is not in Iran’s interests to reveal how it is seeking to avoid a US-imposed embargo on all Iranian oil exports. The UK Foreign Office remains certain that the destination was Syria.

Bob Sanguinetti, the chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said: “We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero … Our priority is for the safety and welfare of the crew. We call on the UK government to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safe and swift return.

“This incident represents an escalation. Whilst we call for measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region.”

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