The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (Image for representational purposes only) (AP )
The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (Image for representational purposes only) (AP )

UK steps up pressure on Iran to release seized oil tanker

  • The UK has demanded the immediate release of the Stena Impero and on Saturday summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires, Mohsen Omidzamani, in London
  • Tensions between Iran and the West have been rising since Trump pulled out of the 2015 multi-nation agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program

The UK government is stepping up pressure on Iran to release a British oil tanker seized in the Strait of Hormuz, an incident that sent tension soaring in one of the world’s critical energy chokepoints.

The UK has demanded the immediate release of the Stena Impero and on Saturday summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires, Mohsen Omidzamani, in London. The government threatened Iran with “serious consequences" and advised UK ships to avoid the area. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a Tweet Saturday that British shipping will be protected.

The UK plans to take further measures next week, Hunt said in a statement without describing the action. The Sunday Telegraph said diplomatic and economic measures, including a freeze on Iranian assets, are being considered and the UK may push the European Union and United Nations to reimpose sanctions.

Tensions have been flaring in the Strait of Hormuz in recent weeks as Iran lashes out against US sanctions that are crippling its oil exports and the seizure of one of its tankers near Gibraltar. The Strait accounts for about a third of the world’s seaborne oil flows, and Brent crude rallied as much as 2.4% on Friday’s news.

“Iran is clearly in a tit-for-tat strategy and for me what happened on Friday is within that framework," said Olivier Jakob, managing director of consultant Petromatrix GmbH. “I think it will stay like this. In terms of really holding a tanker I don’t think they will do more than this, but we could have more harassment."

Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said the UK-flagged ship was seized after it crashed into a fishing vessel. The 23 members of the crew -- none of whom are British -- will remain on board for safety reasons, IRNA reported, citing Allahmorad Afifipour, an Iranian maritime official.

Stena Bulk, the ship’s owner, said it has been told the crew members are in good health, and that it is seeking to visit them. It has been given no instructions about the fate of the ship, which is anchored at the port of Bandar Bahonar.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Saturday that the ship entered the strait from the wrong direction, wasn’t paying heed to maritime regulations and could potentially have collided with other vessels. State television said the ship will be held until judicial assessments are complete.

In recent weeks the UK Navy has escorted some tankers out of the region, while the US said it downed an Iranian drone just days ago. The latest incident cooled hopes that the US and Iran would soothe tensions by entering into negotiations.

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he will be “working with the UK" and suggested the latest developments justify his harsher approach toward Tehran. “This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble, nothing but trouble." France and Germany expressed their support for the UK, with both nations demanding the immediate release of the ship and its crew.

On Friday night, US Central Command announced it was putting in place “a multinational maritime effort" called Operation Sentinel that would “increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation in light of recent events in the Arabian Gulf region."

Iranian forces had briefly stopped a second tanker and a spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council suggested earlier Friday that the move against at least one of the ships was in retaliation for the British seizure of Iran’s Grace 1 tanker off Gibraltar. A court in Gibraltar ordered the continued detention of the vessel, for another 30 days, after it was held on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. Iran denies that was the destination.

‘Rule of Retaliation’

“The rule of retaliation is something that’s recognized within international law and is used in relation to wrong measures taken by a government," Guardian Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodaei told IRNA.

The second ship, the Liberian-flagged Mesdar, re-established contact with its UK-based manager and was moving away from the Iranian coast, according to ship tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. There are no other UK-flagged tankers currently in the Arabian Gulf, ship tracking shows.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency said the Mesdar “was only briefed on requirements for safe navigation and the observance of environmental regulations and allowed to continue on its course," citing military officials it didn’t identify.

Tensions between Iran and the West have been rising since Trump pulled out of the 2015 multi-nation agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program. The US reimposed the sanctions that that had hobbled the Iranian economy and has been pressuring European allies to respect the sanctions and curtail their trade with Iran.

It had been hoped on Friday that tensions between the US and Iran could possibly be lowered through negotiations. An American official had said the administration wants to hear directly from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, about whether the Islamic Republic is interested in negotiations. That followed comments by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that appeared to signal a willingness to talk under specific conditions.

That optimism has quickly faded. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday said the US isn’t willing to talk with Iran until it acts like a normal country. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, for meetings, Pompeo said Iran has shown “no signs" it wants to change direction on its nuclear and missile programs.

Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to NATO during President George W. Bush’s administration, suggested resurrecting a 1980s policy of having tankers accompanied by military escorts in the Gulf.

‘Outlaw Country’

“We should form an international coalition of democratic countries to escort every single commercial vessel through the gulf," Burns said in an interview in Colorado. “The Iranians are an outlaw, they’re acting like an outlaw country, they’re trying to shut down one of the major waterways in the world and then hold us up on it and blackmail us."

The Stena Impero is managed by Northern Marine Management, based in Clydebank, Scotland, and is, just like Stena Bulk, a subsidiary of Swedish-based Stena AB. The Mesdar is owned by a UK subsidiary of Algerian oil company Sonatrach Group.

Friday’s incidents marked at least the second Iranian move against a UK ship in just over a week. On July 11, the British Navy intervened to stop Iran from blocking a commercial oil tanker leaving the Persian Gulf. On Thursday, the US said it destroyed down an Iranian drone that was endangering the Navy ship USS Boxer, a claim Iran has rejected. In June, Trump said he called off a retaliatory strike on Iran following Tehran’s shooting down of an American drone.

“These incidents in isolation are not especially alarming" former US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said at a conference in Aspen, Colorado. But, she added, “in the aggregate they are, given that we’re dealing with players that have little interest in de-escalating."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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