Tensions soar after Iran seizes tanker
The UK Foreign Office has summoned Iran’s charge d'affaires following the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
The British government has condemned the actions of Iran, describing them as “dangerous” and “illegal.”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned Iran that the UK’s response will be “considered but robust.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Britain's warnings against aggression in the Persian Gulf on Saturday with one of his own.
"Unlike the piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar, our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold int'l maritime rules," Zarif said on Twitter, referring to the UK's seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar. "UK must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US."
Iran's capture of the Stena Impero on Friday came just hours after authorities in Gibraltar agreed to extend the detention of an Iranian oil tanker in its custody for 30 days. That ship, the Grace 1, was seized by British authorities on July 4, accused of attempting to transport oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
Observers had expected Iran to respond to the Grace 1's seizure, and the UK raised the security level for British ships in the Persian Gulf just last week.
Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy, said Britain should be unsurprised by the seizing of the Stena Impero tanker, warning that the UK had “too few ships” to defend its interests in the Gulf.
“What I find extraordinary is that we knew that the Iranians would try something like this a few days ago,” he told Sky News. “I’m absolutely amazed that we haven’t implemented some sort of control of red ensign shipping within the region whereby no tanker would go in to what is clearly a dangerous zone without an escort, and I find it bizarre that we seem to have ships doing exactly that.”
The Strait of Hormuz has been the site of increasing tensions in recent weeks.
The channel, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, links the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
If the Strait were to be closed because of the threat of ongoing attacks, it would be a massive blow to the world's economy.
Passage through the strait is the only way to move oil from Persian Gulf producers to the world's oceans, and tensions in the area often affect oil prices.
The Strait is actually even narrower than its 21-mile width suggests. The shipping channels that can handle massive supertankers are only two miles wide heading in and out of the Gulf, forcing ships to pass through Iranian and Omani territorial waters.
About 22.5 million barrels of oil a day have passed through the Strait of Hormuz on average since the start of 2018, according to Vortexa, an energy analytics firm. That's roughly 24% of daily global oil production, and nearly 30% of oil moving over the world's oceans.
To put that in context, the amount of oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz is roughly double the entire oil production of the United States -- even accounting for the recent boom in US output that resulted in it becoming the world's largest oil producer.
France and Germany have condemned Iran's seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf, calling on the Islamic Republic to release the vessel and de-escalate tensions.
The two countries, along with the UK, make up the so-called "EU3" European powers party to the Iran nuclear deal. They have worked to preserve the landmark agreement even after the United States quit the pact and Iran surpassed limits on uranium enrichment.
In a statement, a spokesperson for France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs said it has been following developments with concern: “Such action is detrimental to the necessary de-escalation of tensions in the Gulf region. We strongly condemn it and express our full solidarity with the United Kingdom."
The German Foreign Office echoed the remarks, saying that Iran's action "exacerbates an already strained situation."
“Another regional escalation would be very dangerous. It would also undermine all ongoing efforts to find a way out of the current crisis," a Foreign Office spokesperson said in a statement Saturday.
The India government says it is in touch with counterparts in Iran to try to secure the release of Indian crew members onboard the captured British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero.
"We are ascertaining further details on the incident. Our mission is in touch with the government of Iran to secure the early release and repatriation of Indian nationals," government spokesman Raveesh Kumar said, according to a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
Eighteen Indian nationals are onboard the tanker that was seized Friday and is now being held in Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, Iran’s semi-official Fars News reported.
A statement from the UK operators, Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management, also said that Indian nationals are among the 23-person crew.
Steadily increasing its bets in an international game of bluff, Iran has gone almost all in with a gamble that its hardliners must believe is worth the punt -- but which will certainly end their credit lines even among friends.
In seizing a foreign tanker which it accuses of "violating international regulations," Tehran has resorted to a form of piracy in international waters.
At a time when Iran might have begun to win friends and influence people in the world's corridors of power, it's showing that it really could be the force of dangerous instability that its most ardent enemies have claimed.
Iran has legitimate frustrations over the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal that was supposed to swap limiting its nuclear program for an end to economic sanctions.
And the country has been irritated by the seizure of its own oil tanker, the Grace I, by Gibraltarian and British authorities. But the UK and Iran had been trying to negotiate a way to release the tanker and keep the nuclear deal on track.
And now a British tanker is in the clutches of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps after it was seized in international waters. With no legitimate basis for such a seizure, Iran is committing an act of aggression against a sovereign vessel that, in theory, could be met with an aggressive response.
The British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, has become a pawn in the widening crisis between the Islamic Republic and Western powers in the Persian Gulf, as Iran fights to free itself from the crippling effects of continued American economic sanctions.
"This is classic Iranian escalatory behavior designed to show it can also push back," Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, told CNN on Saturday.
But there could be serious consequences for Iran's aggression toward the UK, as it seeks to renew nuclear talks.
Iran's actions in the Strait came just hours after authorities in Gibraltar agreed to extend the detention of an Iranian oil tanker in its custody for 30 days. That ship, the Grace 1, was seized by British authorities on July 4, accused of attempting to transport oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
"The dangerous strategy for Iran is that this could push the UK closer to the United States and result in greater coordination between the two allies," Vakil said.
The UK -- one of three EU countries party to the Iran nuclear deal -- has worked to maintain the landmark agreement even after its ally, the US, dropped out. But Iran's escalation in the Strait makes that balancing act between saving the deal and appeasing Washington increasingly difficult.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter Saturday that the incident showed "worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behavior," adding that the UK's response would be "considered, but robust."
Robert Ashley, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, said Friday that he believes Iran "does not want war," but is attempting drive a wedge between the US and its EU partners in attempt to change the “status quo."
Ashley was speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado at a panel moderated by CNN's Jim Sciutto.
“What you see is an attempt to break that status quo is to look to divide us with our European powers, to try to get the European powers to come back in to have an economic impact. So you kind of watch this across the dime,” he said.
Watch the full conversation here:
What happened: Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, while it was sailing in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. UK and US officials quickly denounced the move as a reckless violation of international norms.
Iranian media reported Saturday the Stena Impero had been involved in an accident with a fishing boat, and that the ship had been taken to Bandar Abbas Port. The 23-man crew -- made up of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Philippines nationals -- will remain on board until Iranian authorities finis investigating the incident, Iran's Fars news agency reported.
What the UK said: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the seizure "unacceptable" and said "it is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region."
The UK Foreign Office also advised ships to "stay out of the area" for the time being.
Why it matters: The seizure comes amid a dangerous standoff between Iran and the US.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important points of traffic for the world's oil supply chain. If this standoff were to continue to affect traffic in the strait, it could seriously hamper the global economy.
Richard Meade, the managing editor of the influential shipping industry publication Lloyds List, said the Stena Impero's seizure is "probably the highest level security threat that we have seen in the region since the late 80s."