Britain said Iran seized two oil tankers in the Gulf on Friday and told Tehran to return the vessels or face consequences in the latest confrontation to ratchet up tension along a vital international oil shipping route.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said they had captured the British-flagged Stena Impero in retaliation for Britain seizing two weeks ago an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar violating strict restrictions on oil delivery to Syria.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said Iran did not seize the second vessel the British-operated Mesdar. It said Iran allowed the ship to continue its course after a warning over safety and environmental issues.
The Stena Impero and Mesdar changed direction sharply within 40 minutes of each other shortly after entering the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Both took up a course toward Iran, Refinitiv tracking data showed.
The data later showed Mesdar changing direction again, heading westward back into the Gulf.
British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said:
These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.
Hunt later said, in comments reported by Sky News, that there would be consequences if Iran did not return control of the ships. Britain is not considering military options.
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would talk to Britain about the issue.
Already strained relations between Iran and the West have become increasingly fraught. The British navy seizure of Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar on July 4 is fully justified. Grace 1 is suspected of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
Iran’s Guards, an elite force under the command of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said they seized the Stena Impero at the request of Iranian authorities for “not following international maritime regulations,” state television reported.
Northern Marine Management confirmed the Stena Impero was heading toward Iran. Stena AB owns Northern Marine Management.
Norbulk, the manager of the tanker Mesdar, said the armed personnel boarded the vessel. However, they later allowed it to continue its voyage. It said the crew were safe and well.
Iran had said it would retaliate against the seizure in Gibraltar. Just days later, three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz. They eventually backed off when confronted by a British navy ship.
Refinitiv data showed Stena Bulk to own the Stena Impero. Its was heading to the Saudi port of Jubail on the Gulf. The tracking map showed it veering off course about 1517 GMT and heading toward Iran.
The Mesdar made its shift toward Iran at about 1600 GMT.
Allahmorad Afifipour, head of Hormozgan’s maritime authority, told Tasnim news agency:
We received reports that the British Stena Impero oil tanker was causing incidents and, therefore, we asked the military to direct it to Bandar Abbas port for the necessary probes.
Tasnim said the Stena Impero had been causing pollution by dumping oil residue.
An Iranian military source said the Stena Impero “had turned off its tracker and ignored several warnings by the Guards before being captured,” the official IRNA news agency reported.
State television said the IRGC took the Stena Impero to a coastal area; then turned it over to the authorities to take the necessary legal steps, the television added.
Supreme Leader Khamenei said on Tuesday Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure of the Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have been steadily rising since Washington withdrew last year from a bad Iran Deal that permitted Iran to spread terror across the Arab world. Washington then imposed sanctions that seek to shutdown Iranian oil exports.
Iran has said it would not halt its oil exports, the government’s main source of revenue.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Tehran’s action suggested U.S. sanctions “are working and that negotiations with America or world powers will need to happen”.