TEHRAN – Iran’s seizure Friday of a UK-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz two weeks after Britain’s Royal Navy seized an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar threatened to aggravate tensions in the region.
Having threatened more than once to respond to the capture of their ship near Gibraltar, a British Crown Colony, the Iranians appear to have made good on the threat by seizing the Stena Impero.
Tasnim, a news agency with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said that Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization asked the military to escort the tanker to the port of Bandar Abbas after receiving reports that the Stena Impero was “causing problems.”
The vessel deactivated its GPS beacon, entered the Strait of Hormuz at the wrong end and failed to reply to warnings, Tasnim said.
Shortly after Iran announced the seizure of the Stena Impero, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the Iranians also captured a UK-owned, Liberian-flagged ship, calling Tehran’s actions “completely unacceptable.”
But Tasnim and Iranian state television said that military officers boarded the second ship, the Mesdar, and then allowed it to go on its way after a discussion about “maritime safety.”
The operator of the Mesdar, Norbulk Shipping UK, said that it had re-established communication with the ship and that all 25 people aboard were “safe and well.”
Stena Bulk, who own the Stena Impero, said that the last communication from the ship was at 1500 GMT, when the captain reported the approach of several smaller boats and a helicopter.
The Impero, which has a crew of 23, was en route from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia when it was intercepted.
“We are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences,” Jeremy Hunt said. “We are not looking at military options. We are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve this situation but we are very clear that it must be resolved.”
The United Kingdom and Iran resumed full diplomatic relations in 2014.
Friday’s incidents in the Strait of Hormuz happened just hours after a court in Gibraltar ordered the Iranian vessel Grace 1 held for another 30 days. The ship has been under the control of British officials since the Royal Navy seized it two weeks ago.
The UK said it was acting on suspicion that the Grace 1 was carrying crude oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions against that country’s government.
Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday that the Royal Navy committed an “act of maritime piracy” and vowed his country would respond “at the appropriate moment.”
Last week, London said that a Royal Navy ship had to intervene to prevent the Iranians from intercepting a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf, but Tehran dismissed the UK account as a fabrication.
The IRGC said on Thursday that they had seized last weekend a “foreign” vessel engaged in smuggling, providing images of a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by a company in Abu Dhabi.
News of the capture of the British tanker comes a day after President Donald Trump said that a US Navy ship shot down an Iranian drone.
Iran denied losing a drone, but Trump and other US officials insisted Friday that the Iranian unmanned aircraft was destroyed.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf have increased in the last few months amid attacks on oil tankers that Washington blamed on Iran and the June 19 shootdown of a US surveillance drone that Tehran says violated its airspace, though the Pentagon said the aircraft was flying over international waters.
The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel between Iran and Oman, is used to transport 20 percent of global oil shipments, and Tehran has threatened to close the waterway if US sanctions cut off Iranian exports of crude.
Trump, despite steadily expanding the US military presence in the region, insists that he does not want war with Iran, pushing instead for a dialogue along the lines of the one he has pursued with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Iranian leaders, however, reject the idea of any negotiations until and unless Trump brings the US back into the multilateral 2015 pact under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear power program in return for relief from economic sanctions.
Washington pulled out of the accord in May 2018 and has imposed increasingly severe sanctions with the proclaimed intent of crushing the Iranian economy.