A powerful council in Iran said Saturday the country’s seizure of a British oil tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz was in response to Britain’s role in impounding an Iranian supertanker two weeks earlier. At the same time, the country’s foreign minister insisted Iran was simply maintaining maritime law.
The spokesman of Iran’s Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was quoted in the semi-official Fars news agency saying “the rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law” and that 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.”
The council rarely comments on state matters, but when it does it is seen as a reflection of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s views. The council works closely with Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.
Concurrently, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “Unlike the piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar, our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold int’l maritime rules.”
The British-flagged Stena Impero with 23 crew aboard was seized by Iran late Friday. Maritime trackers show it was headed to a port in Saudi Arabia.
On July 4, Britain’s Royal Marines took part in the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker carrying more than 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil by Gibraltar, a British overseas territory off the southern coast of Spain.
Britain has said it would release the vessel if Iran could prove it was not breaching European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria. However, on Friday, a court in Gibraltar extended by 30 days the detention of the Panama-flagged Grace 1.
Iranian authorities had reported earlier Saturday that Iran had seized the British-flagged vessel late Friday after it rammed an Iranian fishing vessel — an explanation that portrayed the seizure as a technicality rather than a tit-for-tat move in the current tense climate.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it seized the Stena Impero Friday for breaking “international maritime rules” in the strait, a choke-point for around a third of the world’s sea-borne oil. 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, authorities said.
Britain initially said Iran had seized two ships in the Gulf, but the British owner of the Liberian-flagged Mesdar said it had been released after being temporarily boarded by armed personnel.
Meanwhile European powers urged Iran on Saturday to release the British-flagged tanker in what Britain called a “dangerous” move.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Friday’s incident showed “worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilizing behavior.”
“Our reaction will be considered but robust. We have been trying to find a way to resolve the Grace 1 issue but WILL ensure the safety of our shipping,” said Hunt.
Hunt warned that “if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences.”
But, he told Sky News, “we’re not looking at military options, we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation.”
British cabinet minister James Brokenshire said the seizure of the tanker was “completely intolerable” and said London was still seeking to establish diplomatic connections with Tehran over the incident.
“The actions of the Iranians is completely unacceptable. It is so important that we maintain this free navigation through the Gulf,” the housing secretary told BBC radio. “We want to see this matter resolved in a diplomatic way. The Iranians need to release this vessel as quickly as possible.”
The British government advised British ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz for “an interim period.”
“We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s unacceptable actions, which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation,” a spokeswoman said after an overnight meeting of Britain’s COBRA emergencies committee.
Germany and France urged Iran to release the tanker, whose seizure Berlin called a “dangerous further aggravation of an already tense situation.”
The Guards also said Thursday they had seized another “foreign tanker” and its crew days earlier for allegedly smuggling fuel, without giving further details.
Tensions in the Gulf have soared since May, with US President Donald Trump calling off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic downed a US drone.
Washington has also blamed Iran for multiple attacks on tankers in the Gulf.
Trump said Friday’s incident “only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble. Nothing but trouble.”
The Stena Impero had been heading for Saudi Arabia on Friday when it hit a fishing vessel, according to port authorities at Bandar Abbas, off which the tanker is now anchored.
Allah-Morad Afifipoor, director-general of the Hormozgan province port and maritime authority, said experts would investigate the incident.
The Swedish-owned tanker “has 23 crew and they are all on the ship,” he said, quoted by the Fars news agency.
The Philippines said 18 Indians, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino were aboard.
Both Manila and New Delhi said they had contacted Tehran to seek their nationals’ release.
Afifipoor said the fishermen had issued a distress call after the collision, contacting the port authority when they “didn’t receive any response.”
“One of the reasons the British tanker was seized for further investigation was that for a period of time it was moving on its route with its transponder turned off,” he told ILNA news agency.
Tracking service MarineTraffic showed the Stena Impero had last signaled its location near the island of Larak at 9:00 p.m. (1630 GMT).
Its owner said the ship was transiting the Strait and was in “international waters” when it was “attacked by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter.”
The incident came as Trump and American officials insisted, despite denials from Tehran, that the US military had downed an Iranian drone that was threatening an American naval vessel in the Strait.
Trump said the drone had been threatening amphibious assault ship the USS Boxer.
The Revolutionary Guards released video footage they said disproved the US claims.
The seven-minute video, apparently shot from high altitude, shows a convoy of ships the Guards said they were tracking as they passed through the Strait. The vessels could not be immediately identified, although one resembles the USS Boxer.
As tensions soared, Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia said it would once again host US troops 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 its patrol aircraft were monitoring the Strait, and announced a “multinational maritime effort” to ensure freedom of navigation in key waterways.
The escalation comes more than a year after Washington unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and began ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran.
Earlier this month, Iran exceeded the deal’s caps on uranium enrichment, aiming to pressure the remaining parties to make good on promises to help prop up its economy.
Tehran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if attacked.