British Prime Minister chairs emergency meeting to decide on UK’s response to the Iranian oil tanker seizure.
Rabat – Britain has called on Iran to release the British-flagged tanker and its crew, describing the seizure of the Stena Impero oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz as illegal.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards abseiled from helicopters and seized the tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, July 19. The seizure came in response to the British capture of an Iranian tanker two weeks earlier.
Iranian officials were explicit that the seizure happened in retaliation for the UK’s capture of Grace 1. The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, said the British “stole and got a response” from the Revolutionary Guards.
“The ship was seized under false and illegal pretenses and the Iranians should release it and its crew immediately,” British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson told reporters on Monday, July 22.
“We do not seek confrontation with Iran, but it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to seize a ship going about legitimate business through internationally recognized shipping lanes,” the spokesperson added.
Footage obtained by an Iranian news agency on Sunday, July 21 depicted the British tanker docked in an Iranian port with Iran’s flag hoisted above it.
Britain’s Prime Minister is chairing a meeting of the United Kingdom’s COBRA emergency response committee on Monday, July 22 to discuss the Iran Gulf crisis and the British government’s next steps.
Meanwhile, experts on the region say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when Washington has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.
The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is under pressure to join the US-led plans for an international maritime protection force in the Gulf, nicknamed Operation Sentinel, as speculations grow that Iran is preparing for a long standoff over the British tanker it has detained.
According to Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, the British government was in “a very difficult position.”
“They don’t want to back what the Americans want, which is to take part in this multinational coalition of warships [in the Strait]. But they don’t have enough warships of their own to protect their oil tankers there either,” Lee said.
“This afternoon Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke in parliament about limited sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and maybe sending some aircraft over there as well,” she said.
On Sunday, July 21 the Foreign Office confirmed that Hunt had spoken with his French and German counterparts who agreed that a “safe passage for vessels” through the economically significant Strait of Hormuz was a top priority for Europe.
The Foreign Office is seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict but has advised all British-flagged ships not to enter the Strait of Hormuz.
“We must restore confidence in the security of ships passing through the strait, and if this necessitates the deployment of more naval vessels from the international community, we would welcome that,” said Bob Sanguinetti, the chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping.
The Western powers, the US & Iran’s Gulf Crisis
The Iranian capture of the ship in the global oil trade’s most significant waterway was the latest escalation in three months of spiraling confrontation with the West that began when new, tighter US sanctions took effect at the start of May 2019.
Washington imposed the new sanctions after President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal signed in 2015, which had provided Iran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
Since then, European countries including Britain have been caught in the middle.
They disagreed with the US decision to quit the nuclear deal but have not managed to offer Iran another way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits and to protect the country from the austere sanctions.
Britain was thrust more directly into the confrontation on July 4, when its Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.
Britain accused Iran’s tanker of violating sanctions on Syria, prompting reiterated Iranian threats of retaliation.
“The Revolutionary Guards responded to Britain’s hijacking of the Iranian tanker,” said Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani after the tanker’s seizure on Sunday, July 21.
Chances of war to erupt in the region
Stephen Zunes, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco, told Al Jazeera that the recent tension increases the chances of conflict even if neither side wants a war.
“With the increasing military threats from the US, this is perhaps the Iranian government’s way of saying to the European community: ‘Hey folks, this is serious. You need to help us out here or things could get really bad’,” Zunes said.
“I do not think either the US or Iran actually want to have a war. But this kind of mutual provocation, upping the stakes can create a situation where some kind of misunderstanding or accident will rapidly escalate, so it’s a very high stakes game,” he added.