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Iran ignores calls to release British oil tanker despite being warned of 'serious consequences'

The seizure has been labelled a “dangerous further aggravation of an already tense situation”.

A US helicopter takes off from the assault ship USS Boxer during a transit of the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday.
A US helicopter takes off from the assault ship USS Boxer during a transit of the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday.
Image: UPI/PA Images

Updated Jul 20th 2019, 3:30 PM

IRAN HAS SO far ignored mounting European appeals to release a British-flagged oil tanker despite Britain warning that the country would face “serious consequences” if the issue is not resolved. 

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it seized the Stena Impero yesterday for breaking “international maritime rules” in the Strait of Hormuz. 

The tanker was impounded off Bandar Abbas port for allegedly failing to respond to distress calls and turning off its transponder after colliding with a fishing vessel, Iranian authorities said, adding an investigation had been launched.

It was one of two ships Britain said Iran seized in the Gulf, but the UK owner of the Liberian-flagged Mesdar said it had been later released after being boarded by armed personnel.

That came hours after a court in Gibraltar said it would extend by 30 days the detention of an Iranian tanker seized by British authorities two weeks ago amid allegations of breaching EU sanctions against Syria.

The Guards said on Thursday they also seized another “foreign tanker” and its crew a few days earlier for allegedly smuggling fuel, without giving further details.

In London, the Foreign Office today summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires to a meeting.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the seizure of the ship showed “worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour”.

His government, which met twice for emergency sessions yesterday, advised British ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz for “an interim period”.

Hunt earlier warned that there would be “serious consequences” if the issue was not resolved quickly.

Germany and France also urged Iran to release the tanker, whose seizure Berlin called a “dangerous further aggravation of an already tense situation”.

US President Donald Trump said yesterday’s incident “only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble. Nothing but trouble [sic]“.

However, Iran has so far remained defiant. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran’s “action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold” international maritime rules.

“It is IRAN that guarantees the security of the Persian Gulf & the Strait of Hormuz. UK must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US,” he tweeted.

Mounting tensions

The latest incidents occurred as US President Donald Trump insisted yesterday that the US military had downed an Iranian drone that was threatening an American naval vessel in the Strait of Hormuz — through which nearly a third of the world’s oil is transported — despite denials from Tehran.

Tensions in the Gulf have soared in recent weeks, with Trump calling off airstrikes against Iran at the last minute in June after Tehran downed a US drone, and blaming Iran for a series of tanker attacks.

The Stena Impero tanker “was confiscated … for failing to respect international maritime rules,” a statement on the Revolutionary Guards’ official website Sepahnews said.

The tanker “was led to the shore and handed over to the organisation to go through the legal procedure and required investigations”, it added.

Tanker tracking service Marine Traffic showed that the Swedish-owned Stena Impero last signalled its location near the island of Larak at around 4.30pm Irish time.

The ship was transiting the Strait of Hormuz and in “international waters” when it was “attacked by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter”, the owner said.

“We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now tracking as heading north towards Iran,” a statement said.

War of words 

Hours before the latest incident, Iran and the United States were caught in a new war of words.

Trump yesterday reiterated a claim that Washington destroyed an Iranian drone that was threatening the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran denied the allegation, and deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi tweeted that US forces may have shot down a US drone by mistake.

The Revolutionary Guards released a video which they said belies the US claims. The seven-minute-long footage, apparently shot from high altitude, shows a convoy of ships which the Guards said they were tracking as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz.

The ships in the footage could not be immediately identified, although one was similar to the USS Boxer. Earlier a US official said Washington has “very clear evidence” that it downed the drone, but gave no details.

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said the recent events involving Tehran are “the exact opposite of odd”.

“This is precisely how Iran negotiates: the unctuous charm of (Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif paired with a punch in the face from the (Revolutionary Guards). They are two sides of the same coin, complementary and coordinated.”

As tensions soared, Tehran’s arch rival Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it would once again host US troops on its soil to boost regional security.

The Pentagon said the deployment “ensures our ability to defend our forces and interests in the region from emergent, credible threats”.

The US military also said it had patrol aircraft monitoring the Strait of Hormuz, and was developing a “multinational maritime effort” dubbed Operation Sentinel to increase surveillance and security in key Middle East waterways.

The operation will “enable freedom of navigation in the region and protect vital shipping lanes,” US Central Command said in a statement.

Nuclear standoff

The latest escalation comes more than a year after Washington DC unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and began ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran.

Yesterday Trump spoke with French president Emmanuel Macron, the White House said, with the leaders discussing “ongoing efforts to ensure Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon”.

Earlier this month, Iran purposely overshot the deal’s caps on uranium enrichment, aiming to pressure the remaining parties to make good on their promises to help prop up its economy.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if attacked.

© AFP 2019 , with reporting by Órla Ryan 

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