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Explainer: Why did Iran seize a British oil tanker and the 23 crew members on board?

In video footage released by an Iranian news agency, masked soldiers are seen travelling down a rope and into the tanker.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard circles a British-flagged speedboat.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard circles a British-flagged speedboat.
Image: AP/PA Images

TENSIONS BETWEEN THE United States and Iran have been mounting for months but the spotlight has turned, at least for now, to escalating tensions between Iran and the United Kingdom.

Iranian authorities boarded two British owned tankers travelling in international waters off its coast last Friday.

It released just one of those ships and continues to detain the Stena Impero and the 23 crew members on board. 

Theresa May is chairing an emergency response committee meeting today where a course of action is to be laid out.

Iran continues to deny any wrongdoing and the UK has yet to deliver a firm rebuke to the move. So as relations sour and an international crisis looms, how does the UK solve a problem like Iran?

What happened?

On Friday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard boarded a British-flagged tanker travelling through the Strait of Hormuz – located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Iranian authorities claimed the vessel was breaking international maritime law and was sailing through Iranian territory.

In alleged audio from naval officers, released from a state-news agency in Iran, the Revolutionary Guard is heard ordering the tanker to turn around. 

“If you obey, you will be safe. Alter your course to three six zero degrees immediately,” the Iranian crew can be heard saying.

In video footage released by the Iranian Fars news agency, masked soldiers are seen travelling down a rope and into the tanker before it, along with the 23 crew members, was docked at an Iranian port . 

A Royal Navy warship – the HMS Montrose – was also engaged in the conversation, according to the audio, but it was located too far away to halt the tanker from being seized. 

The Glasgow-based company Northern Marine, which owns the tanker, said it submitted a formal request to visit the vessel, and insisted had not broken any rules at the time of being captured. 

It also said that it has not been able to contact the vessel and the 23 seafarers on board.

“[The tanker] was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters.

“There have been no reported injuries and their safety is of primary concern to both owners and managers,” it said. 

At the same time the Stena Impero was seized, another British-flagged vessel was also seized and crew members interrogated, but it was released a few hours later. 

Why did Iran take this course of action? 

Iran hasn’t explicitly said what the reason for the seizure was, only indicating that the ship had veered into Iranian waters, while also citing ‘security concerns’, according its national media. 

Much speculation, however, has pointed to the fact a British Royal Navy vessel seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar – a British territory – on 4 July. 

The Grace 1 oil tanker was suspected of transporting oil to Syria, in contravention of EU sanctions, an allegation Iran has vehemently denied. 

It claims the order to seize the ship came from Washington instead, amid the US-Iran tensions sparked when Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposed sanctions. 

Earlier this month, the British government said Iranian boats attempted to impede the passage of British-owned ships.

Does Iran have authority in the Strait of Hormuz?

Iran sits to the north of the Strait of Hormuz and the United Arab Emirates is to the south.

The strait itself is undisputed international waters so Iran doesn’t have a claim to it, and as it is a major shipping route used to transport more than a fifth of the world’s crude oil, dozens of tankers pass through it daily.

Has this happened before?

This has happened before between the US and Iran but now the UK has been pulled into the mix. 

The 1980s saw the US and Iran go to war over oil tankers travelling through the straight of Hormuz and lingering tensions have carried through to the modern day. 

They peaked when Donald Trump was elected and rhetoric surrounding the Iran nuclear deal came back to the fore – particularly as Trump was vocal about plans to pull the US out of it. 

Both Britain and America have increased their military presence in the region in recent weeks prompting fears that all three countries are lining up their troops in the event that it escalates further. 

So what happens now?

The British government has been slow to decide on a course of action. 

As the company awaits a response to its request to visit the vessel, the British government is to decide on how to respond today. 

Former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith criticised the British government’s response to the Iran crisis, saying it has taken its “eye off the ball” while the Conservative leadership race dominated the agenda.

Philip Hammond, in an interview with the BBC, insisted it was working with other allies to negotiate the correct course of action. 

While the outcome of the leadership contest is forthcoming this week, it might be battling for airtime depending on the outcome of the special committee meeting today.

On one side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has threatened to go to war with Iran on a number of occasions in recent months. 

On the other side, the UK is searching for a way to solve the Iran crisis without sparking an outright war; and at the same time condemning the Muslim republic’s actions. 

It remains to be seen how far each country is willing to go to gain an upper hand in the conflict, but the very real fear remains that one wrong move could see the start of the next world war. 

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