NEW YORK – Britain’s decision to seize an Iranian tanker off the coast of its overseas territory of Gibraltar earlier this month is fast snowballing, dragging the country deeper into an escalating crisis between Iran and the West.
Iran on Friday seized a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf, saying it had collided with a fishing vessel, a move widely seen as retaliation. On Saturday, the Stena Impero arrived in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas with its 23 crew members still on board.
The UK government warned of a robust response, but Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stopped short of including military action, saying such a measure isn’t yet warranted.
“Our priority continues to be to find a way to de-escalate the situation,” Hunt said on Saturday, adding that new unspecified measures against Iran would be presented to Parliament on Monday.
Hunt said the British ship had been halted in Oman waters and forced into Iranian waters. “This is totally and utterly unacceptable,” he added.
He wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif about his displeasure at Tehran’s moves. Iran’s charge d’affaires in London was also summoned to the British foreign office.
“This has 2 be about actions not words if we are to find a way through,” Hunt tweeted. “British shipping must & will be protected.”
Zarif tweeted that “unlike the piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar, our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold [international] maritime rules.”
He added: “UK must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US.”
The crisis comes at a difficult time for the British government, which faces a leadership change next week in which Hunt is one of the last two contenders to become prime minister along with the favorite, Boris Johnson.
The UK is also trying to balance its relationship with both the US and European Union as it prepares to leave the EU later this year. London said it seized the Iranian tanker off Gibraltar in part because it was on its way to deliver oil to a refinery in Syria, which is currently under EU sanctions.
On Friday, a court in Gibraltar extended the vessel’s detention to Aug. 15. The UK had been trying to resolve the issue by asking Iran to find a destination for the ship other than Syria and ensure that a sanctioned entity wouldn’t purchase the oil. Zarif and Hunt have said they held constructive talks on the matter last week. But attempts to find a new destination have proven difficult, with the vessel’s complex ownership complicating matters.
Iran is looking at new destinations that include storing the oil in nearby Morocco or Algeria, according to shipping and trading executives familiar with the considerations.
Some security experts question how the British government is dealing with the escalating crisis.
“We haven’t handled the response well at all,” said Alan West, a retired UK Royal Navy admiral and former British government security adviser. After leaving Britain’s merchant shipping vulnerable to retaliation, the government is now caught trying to defuse the situation while showing it won’t be bullied by Iran.
West says Britain’s Royal Navy could destroy Iran’s fleet “and be back in time for tea and medals,” but a more realistic retaliation would be British sanctions on Iran.
Foreign-policy experts say Britain could have avoided the incident by taking a less confrontational approach, warning off the Iranian vessel heading past Gibraltar rather than sending in special forces to board it.
In the aftermath, the government could also have taken more decisive action, sending a larger fleet of ships to escort British merchant shipping heading through the Strait of Hormuz. Britain currently has a frigate and a destroyer in the region along with four mine sweepers, and has emphasized there was a lawful basis for intercepting and detaining the Iranian tanker off Gibraltar.
With the drama likely to roll on, whoever replaces Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street next week faces a dilemma on how to handle the issue.
The UK has been trying to appease both US and EU foreign-policy objectives. Like other European nations, Britain has urged the US not to ditch an accord aimed at discouraging Iran from developing nuclear weapons. At the same time, the UK is also looking to keep the US on its side as it prepares to leave the EU.
The seizure of the Iranian tanker followed intelligence from US sources, people familiar with the matter say.
In the early hours of Saturday, the British government convened a crisis meeting to discussion the situation. It advised British shipping to stay out of the Strait of Hormuz.
“There will be serious consequences if the situation is not resolved,” the British foreign office said in a statement after the meeting. The government is holding further crisis meetings over the weekend.