Iran says tanker seizure was 'reciprocal'
The Stena may be a bargaining chip, but room for manoeuvre is shrinking
At 4.19pm last Friday, the British-flagged Stena Impero switched off its transponder. This is known as 'going dark' and it is not normally done by commercial oil tankers in the Gulf.
The first clue as to what had happened was its abrupt change of course, which was picked up by tracking services. Its original destination was a port in Saudi Arabia, but it had taken a sharp turn and was heading into Iranian waters.
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Minutes earlier it had been boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who had hijacked the vessel and turned off its communication systems.
Approximately 40 minutes later, the British-owned, Liberian-flagged ship Mesdar also went dark. The trackers picked it up following the same route as the Stena Impero. The crew was questioned for an hour before the vessel was released, unlike the Stena which was escorted on to the coast of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran.
British authorities were alerted and quickly called a Cobra meeting. The capture of their ships was something they had been dreading, though it had not come entirely as a surprise.
Tensions have been heating up in the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important oil chokepoint. At the start of the month, a detachment of British Royal Marines operating out of Gibraltar seized a tanker suspected of carrying Iranian oil destined for Syria in breach of EU sanctions. The Spanish government later said the US had been in contact with the UK immediately prior to the seizure of Grace 1.
The Iranians' response was to issue a warning. "If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities' duty to seize a British oil tanker," an Iranian official wrote on Twitter.
Fearing they would make good on their threat, the UK sent the frigate HMS Montrose to shadow its tankers through the strait and dispatched HMS Duncan for support. When the reports came from the Stena Impero, the Montrose sped to its location from the Omani waters where it was patrolling. It has a top speed of 30kph, but even so it arrived an hour too late.
Last weekend Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, had tried to defuse the situation by suggesting the UK was willing to release the Grace 1 tanker - but a court in Gibraltar on Friday ruled to hold it for another 30 days. Hours later the Iranian Revolutionary Guards sprang into action.
The legality of Britain's impounding of the Grace 1 has been questioned. Tehran denied the oil was bound for Syria and accused the UK of acting in bad faith.
However, British lawyers have claimed that as it was travelling through British overseas territory it was subject to EU laws. The Strait of Gibraltar is 14km wide at its narrowest point, and territorial waters generally extend up to 22km. If this overlaps with another state's territorial sea - as in this case with Spain and Morocco - the border is taken as the median point between the states' baselines.
Revolutionary Guards yesterday tried to justify their seizure of the Stena with a variety of alternating claims, including that it had "violated maritime law"; was sailing on the wrong side of the water; and had in fact collided with an Iranian fishing boat, whose distress call it ignored. No such call was picked up by any other ship in the area.
Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman for Iran's Guardian Council, which rarely comments on state matters, later said Iran did not need an excuse to take the Stena and spelt out that it had been a tit-for-tat response.
"The rule of reciprocal action is well known in international law and Iran's moves to confront the illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers is an instance of this rule and is based on international rights," he said.
Kadkhodaei's remarks, carried by Iran's Fars news agency, also denounced the "illegitimate economic war" on Iran, an apparent reference to international sanctions.
The Guardian Council, a powerful group that oversees internal matters such as elections, rarely comments on international affairs. But its declarations about the UK tanker seizure possibly reflect the views of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a willingness by Iran's rulers to step up the brinkmanship.
There is now a stand-off in the Gulf, with both countries unwilling to hand over the other's ship.
"Iran has responded in a way that presents the UK with a problem," said Michael Stephens, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank. "The ball is now in the UK's court. Britain could choose to detain more Iranian ships, or look to gather a group of states, such as France, Germany and the US, to see how, and in what ways, more pressure can be placed on Iran." However, he believed no major decision would be agreed until Theresa May's handover to the new prime minister, which will take place this Wednesday.
The next formal step will be an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), in the hope of passing a resolution ordering Iran to release the Stena and stop its aggressive behaviour. Russia, an ally of Iran and a veto-wielding member, is likely to block it, however, if the condemnation is too strongly worded.
The UK foreign office has stressed it is keeping separate the issues of Iranian threats in the Gulf, EU sanctions on Syria, and the nuclear deal. But they have inevitably become intertwined.
The latest aggressions can be tracked back to last year, when Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord and reimposed sanctions.
The Islamic Republic has legitimate frustrations over the US withdrawal from the deal - which it had been adhering to - that was supposed to swap limiting its nuclear programme for an end to sanctions crippling Iran's economy.
At the same time, however, Trump has made it clear he wants to avoid war with Iran, as has the UK.
Last Thursday Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, offered an olive branch to Trump - a deal that would see Tehran accept enhanced inspections of its nuclear programme in return for the permanent lifting of sanctions. And Trump has sent Senator Rand Paul - rather than John Bolton, his hawkish anti-Iran national security adviser - for meetings with Zarif.
However, Iranian hardliners now also want out of the deal - saying the US's bad faith only proved what they always knew: that America cannot be trusted.
"I suspect the Stena is a bargaining chip," said Charles Hollis, a former British diplomat in Iran.
"It came only days after Zarif showed some willingness to open negotiations, which may have led some hardliners to want to disrupt things a little. I don't think any side is looking for a conflict. The fact that people on both sides were seeking a de-escalation means there may be a deal to be found."
He warned, however, that Friday's incident showed the margins for manoeuvre are "shrinking" and "the risks of unintended consequences growing".
In Washington on Friday, Trump said the interception of the British ship proved his repeated assertions that Iran is "nothing but trouble".
"It goes to show you I was right," he said, distancing himself from the events by adding: "It's not American, it's UK... Let's see what happens."
The new tensions coincide with the arrival in the region of US naval reinforcements aimed at securing the safety of shipping in the area.
Among the US warships that have arrived in the region is the USS Boxer, which on Thursday destroyed an Iranian drone that had flown close, according to Trump and the Pentagon.
Iran, however, denied that the drone had been brought down and on Friday broadcast footage of a warship that it claimed was the Boxer to demonstrate that the drone was still functional.
A different US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the US military had surveillance aircraft in the region. The US is also sending military personnel and resources to Saudi Arabia for the first time since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Oil prices rose 2pc on Friday on the news of Iran's actions - but they were still down for the full week, reflecting worries over weak global demand and trade uncertainty.
Prices fell 6.4pc last week, oil's biggest weekly loss since December.