DUBAI/LONDON—Britain was weighing its next moves in the Gulf tanker crisis on July 21, with few good options apparent as a recording emerged showing that the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized a ship last week.
Little clue has been given by Britain on how it plans to respond after Iranian Revolutionary Guards rappelled from helicopters and seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19 in apparent retaliation for the British capture of an Iranian tanker two weeks earlier.
The British government is expected to announce its next steps in a speech to parliament on July 20. But experts on the region say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when the United States has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.
“I don’t see at this point in time us being able to offer a concession that can resolve the crisis. Providing security and escort for future ships is a different matter.”
A day after calling the Iranian action a “hostile act”, top British officials kept comparatively quiet on July 21, making clear that they had yet to settle on a response.
“We are going to be looking at a series of options,” junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood told Sky News. “We will be speaking with our colleagues, our international allies, to see what can actually be done.
“Our first and most important responsibility is to make sure we get a solution to the issue to do with the current ship, make sure other British-flagged ships are safe to operate in these waters and then look at the wider picture.”
Months of Confrontation
The Iranian capture of the ship in the global oil trade’s most important waterway was the latest escalation in three months of spiraling confrontation with the West that began when new, tighter U.S. sanctions took effect at the start of May.
Tensions between Iran and the United States, along with U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, have risen ever since Washington pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The Obama administration said the deal between Iran and global powers would help curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump has been increasing pressure on Iran’s leaders since May 2018 after quitting from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing tight sanctions on Iran lifted as a part of the Obama deal. The sanctions are an effort to force the Islamic regime to change a plethora of activities the administration finds unacceptable.
Britain was thrust more directly into the confrontation on July 4, when its Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. Britain accused it of violating European Union sanctions by smuggling oil to Syria, But Iran denies that allegation and has repeatedly called for the ship’s release.
While Iran’s official line is that its capture of the Stena Impero was because of safety issues, it has done little to hide that the move was retaliatory. The tactics it used—with masked troops rappelling from helicopters — matched those the British had used two weeks before.
In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Britain said the Stena Impero was approached by Iranian forces in Omani territorial waters, where it was exercising its lawful right of passage, and that the action “constitutes illegal interference”.
Britain’s warship in the Gulf, the HMS Montrose, contacted an Iranian patrol vessel in an effort to ward off a boarding of the Stena Impero, according to radio messages provided to Reuters by maritime security firm Dryad Global.
“Please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board,” the Montrose said in the radio message.
By Parisa Hafezi & Peter Graff