Iran’s seizure of the British tanker Stena Impero has pushed tensions in the Persian Gulf to a higher level. By undertaking this action, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) has intensified Iran’s confrontation with the West.
On the long term, Iran's might end up paying a high price for its aggressive policy of harassing international shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian authorities have cited numerous reasons to justify their action; including a claim the British tanker collided with an Iranian fishing vessel, but they have not produced any evidence to convince the international community their action was justified and legal.
Iranian threats to retaliate against British shipping preceded the seizure of Stena Impero. Iran was trying hard to secure the release of its supertanker detained at Gibraltar in early July.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued the last warning July 16 before the attack on the British tanker.
...this is a victory which may prove to be a short-term achievement. Britain and its allies have not threatened military retaliation, but the political consequences will prove to be costly not just for the Islamic Republic, but for Iran as a state and a geographic entity...
“Iran will respond to treacherous Britain’s piracy,” Khamenei said in his usual angry voice about the United Kingdom, adding that “Iran’s response will come at the right time and the right place.”
The ultimate signal from Khamenei amounted to an order that the IRGC carried out and the foreign ministry came to support the justifications presented following the commando raid capturing the tanker.
Immediately after the seizure of the tanker, the IRGC and other circles supporting Khamenei could not hide their glowing sense of victory. But more than that, all the factions of the regime seem to have united on this issue, although they had shown policy differences when the United States pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
But this is a victory which may prove to be a short-term achievement. Britain and its allies have not threatened military retaliation against Iran, but the political consequences will prove to be costly not just for the Islamic Republic, but for Iran as a state and geographic entity in the region.
With its vast coastline dominating the Persian Gulf, its large population base and economic potential, Iran is the natural dominating force in the region. Only the might of Western countries kept Iran from projecting power in the last 500 years, since the Portuguese first set foot into the Gulf, followed by a long British domination lasting well into the 20th century.
Iran's time to show its power arrived when the United Kingdom decided to largely withdraw from the Persian Gulf at a time when the U.S. was bogged down in a costly war in Vietnam in the 1960s.
Iran under its pro-Western monarchy, with a burgeoning military and modernizing economy finally got its chance not only to project power and defend its rights but also become the new guarantor of stability and safety of the ever-vital maritime shipping lanes.
The West and emerging economies counted on Iran in the 1970s to keep the Persian Gulf and the flow of oil fueling the global economy safe.
All this changed with the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which soon proved to be seeking influence by exporting revolution than being the classic regional superpower.
The seizure of Stena Impero sends a message to the world that Iran does play a destructive regional role. U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement that Iran “is nothing but trouble” will have a bigger resonance now than ever before.
Now, with the seizure of the British tanker, Iran has taken its role as a spoiler a notch higher. The hawks in Washington may be looking with satisfaction at what Tehran has done to further isolate itself.
After all, under “maximum pressure” by the U.S., Tehran was desperately counting on Europe for vital support. Now, it is in direct confrontation with Britain and its EU allies.
If Iran’s leadership sticks to its policy of intensifying tensions and prolonging the confrontation, they will be making a strategic mistake, which not only will affect their government but it will impact Iran as a state and geographic entity.
The seizure of Stena Impero sends a message to the world that Iran does play a destructive regional role. U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement July 19 that Iran “is nothing but trouble” will have a bigger resonance now than ever before.
The Islamic Republic’s confrontational conduct might highlight the power of the Supreme Leader and his hardliner allies, including the IRGC in the short term, but in the long term it will weaken Iran’s position in the geopolitical arrangements concerning the region and the Persian Gulf.
China and Russia are also sensitive toward maintaining security and stability of the important international waterway for the world economy.
Iran’s dangerous game will increase the chances of losing its regional influence in the future. The emergence of some sort of a coalition for the long-term containment of Iran is a distinct possibility.
Even in the short-term, The game Tehran is playing might end up alienating the European to leave the nuclear deal and reinstate economic sanctions. This will also increase the risk of military confrontation and war.
If Iran continues its “tanker war”, it might end up being the loser, as its tankers can be detained elsewhere in the world. Also, Iran’s ability to harass shipping in the Persian Gulf will become more limited as U.S., British and other navies start escorting oil tankers and standing up to IRGC’s naval interferences.
Far from being a demonstration of power, Iran’s action in seizing the British tanker more resembles the acts of terror organizations, which fight from a position of weakness.
The end result of this adventurism does not seem to bear any tangible gains for the Islamic Republic except short term propaganda benefits. It seems Iran is running out of cards to play. It will be forced either to retreat or risk military conflict with unforeseen consequences.