On 19 July 2019, Iranian naval units intercepted a British-flagged oil tanker in the Straight of Hormuz and drove it north to the port of Bandar Abbas where it was detained along with crew members. Iran claimed that the ship violated regional navigation laws and nearly collided with an Iranian fishing boat. Britain denied that the ship violated any navigation laws and argued that the Iranian action was illegal, demanding the immediate release of the tanker and crew.
War of the Tankers?
Regardless of the Iranian justification for the seizure of the Stena Impero, the move is a clear response to the British government of Gibraltar’s capture of the Iranian tanker Grace 1 carrier as it crossed the strait loaded with 2 million barrels of oil, arguing that it was destined for Syria and that the UK is committed to the EU sanctions on the Syrian regime and not US sanctions on Iran. Iran requested the release of the ship but the UK would only agree to this on the condition of Iranian assurances that it was not headed for Syria. Iran has refused to agree to such conditions so far and has threatened to detain British ships in the Gulf unless the latter releases the tanker. Indeed, Iran has repeatedly tried in the last two weeks to intercept and detain British ships in Gulf waters. It would have succeeded on one occasion without the involvement of the British navy, which managed to thwart an Iranian attempt to intercept a British tanker earlier this month before it was finally able to seize the Stena Impero. Iran seems to have been considering forcing Britain to release its own ship, carrying more than $100 million worth of oil, with a trade-off.
Tehran’s reaction to the sanctions
The capture of the British ship is the latest in a series of events since the Trump administration decided in early May to cancel the exemptions granted to eight countries that imported about 1.5 million barrels of Iranian oil a day. This led Iranian exports to fall to less than 400,000 barrels per day. This has placed a heavy burden on Iran, where oil revenues account for about 40% of the total revenue of the Iranian public budget. Since then, the Trump administration has imposed additional sanctions on the Iranian mining sector (representing 10 %of Iran’s total exports), followed by sanctions on the petrochemical sector (valued at about $14 billion annually) and before finally making the symbolic and provocative move of imposing sanctions on Iranian leaders, including on the leader of the revolution. These sanctions are aimed at strangling Iran economically and forcing them to return to the negotiating table in the hope that they will make new concessions on the nuclear and missile programs and regional influence. Although the United States has been strengthening its military presence in the Gulf to deter Iran from any reaction to these sanctions, Iran reacted on two levels:
- First, Iran threatened the closure the Strait of Hormuz, and prevention of others from exporting their oil if it is still unable to export its own. Although Tehran has denied its responsibility, Washington accuses it of targeting or trying to target tankers in the region, translating into other threats to prevent them from exporting their oil as well. Four oil tankers were damaged off the UAE port of Fujairah on 13 May 2019. Two other carriers were targeted by sea mines in the Gulf of Oman a month later. The Pentagon broadcast pictures showing an Iranian boat trying to remove a mine from the body of one of them. Iran believes that the detention of its Grace 1 in Gibraltar is simply a translation of Trump’s attempts to completely prevent it from exporting its oil. By capturing the British oil tanker, Iran has tried to say that it will not tolerate attempts to block its oil exports, and that there will be a price to be paid by those trying to do so, and it will not allow Gibraltar to set a precedent to be followed by other countries under US pressure. Saudi Arabia detained an Iranian tanker in the port of Jeddah on the pretext that it had outstanding port and maintenance fees valued at more than $10 million, paid by Iran before it was released by Saudi Arabia, which had helped to rescue it when it broke down in the Red Sea.
- Second, Iran’s obligations relate to the terms of the nuclear agreement; of which Iran has violated two. The first relates to the quantities of enriched uranium that it is entitled to retain after its enrichment (3.67%). Iran has declared a moratorium on the sale of enriched uranium and heavy water. Under the agreement, Iran may not retain enriched uranium of more than 300 kg at any time, or heavy water in excess of 130 tons. Iran says it has begun enriching uranium at a rate of 4.5%, up from the 3.67% stipulated in the deal. Moreover, there has been a rapid escalation in Houthi targeting of Saudi vital installations, including airports and oil installations, which appears to be connected.
The British Reaction
The UK has refused to talk about any trade-off with Iran, arguing that the British capture of the Iranian ship in Gibraltar was legally justified, describing Iran’s actions as “piracy.” Britain has also threatened to take action if Iran does not release the tanker. London appears to be in the process of approaching the UN Security Council after sending a letter accusing Iran of retaining its ship and denying its alleged violation of navigation laws. As the crisis continues, Britain is likely to impose sanctions on Iran, including freezing Iranian assets. The UK may later seek to re-impose UN and European sanctions lifted from Iran after the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. But this will not be easy, as Russia and perhaps China are expected to use veto power against any draft resolution submitted by Britain to the Security Council. And although Britain has received European solidarity in the crisis with Iran, especially its partners in the nuclear agreement France and Germany, the re-imposition of European sanctions on Iran has also received resistance from Paris and Berlin, because that effectively eliminates the last chance to salvage the nuclear deal, which the two countries are making an extraordinary effort to preserve.
An Alliance of “the Willing” to Protect Navigation Freedom
Britain, which has asked its vessels to temporarily avoid entering the waters of the Persian Gulf, is moving to increase its military presence in the region. This increase is likely to come as part of Washington’s efforts to create an international alliance to protect shipping and oil tankers in the Gulf. Washington is heading to the Warsaw 2 conference in Manama, which is expected to bring together the countries that participated in the February 2019 Warsaw Conference, led by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an attempt to mobilize diplomatically to confront Iran.
Washington appears to be making strides in this area; The US Central Command has announced that it is developing a multinational maritime effort, called Operation Sentinel, to increase surveillance and security of major waterways in the Middle East, with the aim of promoting maritime stability, ensuring safe passage, and reducing tensions in international waters throughout the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait and the Gulf of Oman. The Central Command also announced that participating countries will be able to guard vessels flying their flag while benefiting from the cooperation of the participating countries to coordinate and promote awareness and control of the maritime field. US officials continue to work with allies and partners in Europe, Asia and the Middle East regarding the details needed for Operation ‘Sentinel’ to enable freedom of navigation in the region and to protect vital shipping corridors.
The US has used the British carrier’s detention to boost to its efforts to create an alliance to confront Iran, tighten its chokehold on it, rile up dissidents and neutralize opponents. The US has had difficulties in garnering international support against Iran, because Washington breached its obligations under the nuclear agreement by withdrawing from it, so many consider the US primarily responsible for this crisis. Now that Iran is intercepting ships, targeting tankers and affecting the safety of supply and prices, which has implications for the global economy, many countries may change their position because there is no desire to allow an attack on navigation in international waters, especially at crossings and strategic straits. Even China, which has always been the closest to the Iranian position, is signaling that, while refusing to participate in an international coalition led by Washington to protect the freedom of navigation in the Gulf, it will not oppose it. China imports more than 3 million barrels of oil from the Gulf (44% of its oil imports) and does not want any disruption in supply. This could affect its already struggling economy, the growth rate of which fell to about 6.4% because of the trade war with the United States.
Iran’s seizure of the British flagged oil tanker has raised tensions in the Gulf to new heights, especially in light of US preparations for an international coalition to protect shipping freedom in the region and expectations of a significant increase in its international military presence. Although it is clear that the Trump administration does not want to engage in a military confrontation with Iran, the continued targeting of oil tankers and the determination of the US and its allies to protect international shipping lanes and the continued flow of oil from the Gulf may actually lead to a confrontation. Iran will not accept being prevented from exporting its oil becoming a fait accompli. Unless the two sides can quickly open a diplomatic track to break the impasse, which is what several countries, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on a trip to New York last week are trying to do, the prospect of military confrontation is steadily increasing.
 “Where to Next for Iranian-US Confrontation after Oil Tanker Attacks?” Unit for Policy Studies, ACRPS, 17/6/2019, accessed 22/7/2019 at: https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/Where-the-US-Iran-Confrontation-Headed-Following-the-Oil-Tanker-Attacks.aspx