Iran seizes UK tanker in counter-escalation

The British tanker seized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Strait of Hormuz, Jul 20, 2019

The seizure of a British oil tanker by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on July 20 in the Strait of Hormuz has all the hallmarks of a retaliatory act in the downstream of the seizure of an Iranian tanker by the British Navy exactly two weeks ago on July 4 off Gibralter. 

On July 16, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had warned, “Iran will respond to the vicious Britain’s piracy. Iran’s response will come at the right time and the right place.” Four days later, IRGC struck. An IRGC statement gave a detailed account of what happened. Footage of the incident has also been released — just as Britain did. 

Iran is taunting Britain and making it look foolish. Britain is now left with no option but to negotiate. And the outcome of any negotiations can be easily foretold — Britain will have to unceremoniously set free the Iranian tanker. 

Quite obviously, the seizure of the Iranian tanker by Britain was done in tandem with the hardliners in Washington and it is by now clear that the EU distanced itself from it in considerable embarrassment. Britain’s dilemma now will be that all its ships in the Strait of Hormuz are in Iran’s crosshairs. And Britain is left all alone to take the flak after precipitating a crisis needlessly. (See Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall’s stunning piece, How Trump’s arch-hawk lured Britain into a dangerous trap to punish Iran.) 

Yesterday’s incident was a calculated act by the IRGC, enacted right under the nose of a British warship, which was escorting the tanker. When the warship threatened to open fire, IRGC retorted that it would also retaliate with fire. Thereupon, an Iranian helicopter dropped masked men on the British tanker and took control of it. The intention is to make the Brits look impotent and stupid. (See the Press TV commentary The Royal Navy: From Piracy to Impotence.) 

In a broader perspective, therefore, it appears that Iran may have underscored that its earlier threat must be taken very seriously — that if its oil exports ever got intercepted or blocked, then no one will be allowed to export oil via the Strait of Hormuz. More fundamentally, this is an unambiguous  message that if the “other side” escalates, make no mistake, Iran will counter escalate.   


On July 17, Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars News had carried an interview with me (in Persian) on the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker by Britain and its likely consequences as well as the related issues of the Iran-EU cogitations over the mechanism known as INSTEX, which Brussels has put in place to circumvent US sanctions against Iran.

In the context of yesterday’s incident in the Straits of Hormuz, my interview with the Fars correspondent Mahdi Khodabakhsh may be of interest. The English translation of the interview follows:  , 

‘Indian diplomat: British action against Iran on behalf of the United States.’

QUESTION: As you know, some days ago UK royal navy seized a Tanker containing Iranian crude oil off Gibraltar. UK claimed it was bound to Syria which is under sanctions. Do you think UK’s move was legal? What does the international law say about it?

ANSWER: As far as I can gather from media reports, the legality of the British action is highly questionable. Syria is not under any UN sanctions and under international law, there is no embargo on oil supplies to that country.

QUESTION: How do you see the development and what effect it can have on Iran relations with EU? (also considering recent JCPOA tensions) 

ANSWER: This is an act of blatant provocation with a view to inciting an Iranian reaction that could in turn be used as an alibi for some other downstream action by the US. I cannot see how the EU can endorse the British action because the group has no such policy to enforce a naval blockade of Syria. At least, I have not seen any EU country endorsing the British action so far. There are also signs that UK is seeking some sort of a patch-up with Iran, while saving face, because the international opinion did not support the British action. 

QUESTION: In your opinion would it be proper for Iran – in this tense situation – to react to UK’s move and do something retaliatory? If No, why is that; and if Yes what could the response be? 

ANSWER: I have no doubt that Iran views the British belligerence with utmost seriousness and there will be consequences. Having said that, in my opinion, it is only proper that Iran has refused to be provoked into any knee-jerk response but is taking its own time. There could be a range of responses that Iran could consider, but importantly, Iran should only give a measured response that does not provide excuses for the US for doing something reckless or aggressive. The US or the so-called B Team, to my mind, has most likely instigated the British action. This is a surcharged atmosphere and Iran has so far acted with restraint and dignity — and rationally.

QUESTION: As we know, Iran started taking second step in reducing its obligations under JCPOA from yesterday due to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal and of course because Iran did not benefited from economic relief. So how do you think EU and other remaining parties in JCPOA will react to these steps by Iran? Are they going to trigger the dispute mechanism and snap-back lifted UN sanctions? 

ANSWER: The EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday reportedly took the decision that the situation does not warrant any move to trigger the dispute mechanism or to demand snap-back sanctions. 

QUESTION: Yesterday EU ministers held a meeting in Brussels with a focus on the Deal however many of the diplomats including French, Britain, German, Dutch, Finnish Foreign Ministers and even Mogherini called on Iran to stay committed unilaterally to JCPOA but say nothing about  US withdrawal. Do you think with this trend, JCPOA will survive? Considering European partners’ inaction against US sanctions on Iran and its unilateral withdrawal from the deal, despite 14 months period Iran given to them for some efforts; do you think that EU really wants the JCPOA? Are they sincere in what they say about Iran deal? UK, Britain and France tried to put together a mechanism to evade US sanctions for trading with Iran called INSTEX. However Tehran says it was not fruitful. How do you elaborate its effectiveness to benefit Iran from JCPOA economic relief? Is US capable of sanctioning the whole INSTEX?

ANSWER: The EU is walking a fine line. It is unrealistic to expect the US’ European allies — make no mistake, there are still allies — to publicly condemn Washington even if they disagree fundamentally on the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. Clearly, the EU is keen that the JCPOA survives and there should be no doubt on that score. One can see that the EU is on the defensive, as it realises that the EU and the E3 have not been able to fulfil their obligations under the JCPOA. What they are trying to do, in my opinion, is to mitigate to some extent Iran’s losses. As of now, there is a visible shortfall. The issue is not about sincerity but about politics, which is the art of the possible. 

The INSTEX has just become operational.  The EU foreign policy chief Mogherini is on record that the mechanism is fleshing out some business proposals already. She also said that certain non-EU third parties have shown interest in the INSTEX. These are encouraging signs. To my mind, these are early days and it is difficult to pass final judgment. Mogherini claimed that the E3 are also discussing the feasibility of oil trade being included in the INSTEX mechanism. 

As things stand, the US may see the INSTEX as contravening its sanctions and the ‘maximum pressure’ policy. But then, on the other hand, US is also interested that the JCPOA survives (according to Mogherini.) Therefore, a pragmatic US attitude toward INSTEX cannot be ruled out, either. As I said earlier, this is an evolving situation.