Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tensions Reach Boiling Point In Persian Gulf

Grab: Iran -- tanker sailing under Britain's flag, off Bandar Abbas, 20Jul2019
Grab: Iran -- tanker sailing under Britain's flag, off Bandar Abbas, 20Jul2019

Tensions between Iran and the West reached a peak in the Persian Gulf on the evening of July 19 as Iran detained a British-flagged ship and warned another one allegedly in retaliation for the detention of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar.

Although diplomacy is still the most popular approach as far as other players are concerned, all other options also appear to be on the table as Iran remains defiant.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had said earlier during the week that Tehran would retaliate to punish what he called in his usual angry tone "evil Britain" for detaining an Iranian oil tanker carrying Iranian oil to Syria on July 4 in breach of EU sanctions.

However, in spite of Khamenei's very clear threat about retaliation, Iranian officials and the media have so far refrained from bringing up the issue of a tit-for-tat with the United Kingdom.

To justify the seizure of the ship, Iran said Saturday morning that the ship had been "confiscated" for ignoring Iranian authorities' warning after it collided with a fishing vessel.

Another British-operated ship was cautioned by Iranian forces for "doing harm to the environment” but was allowed to sail toward Saudi Arabia at the northern end of the gulf.

This comes as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has often been criticized by environmentalists in the region for violating environmental protection regulations.

Key Iranian Navy and IRGC Bases in the Strait of Hormuz
Key Iranian Navy and IRGC Bases in the Strait of Hormuz

Nevertheless, the Stena Impero's owner and operator, Stena Bulk and Northern Marine, denied any violations.

In an attempt to deescalate the tension, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his country was focusing on diplomacy and not "military options" following the seizure.

At the same time, he sent a powerful message to Tehran: "We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences," Hunt told reporters late on July 20.

The United Kingdom, however, made it clear that London was "not looking at military options -- we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation." However, with Iran continuing to be defiant, both options appear to be on the table.

Tensions in the Persian Gulf have been on the rise following the tightening of sanctions against Iran's oil exports and international banking last November. These were part of the measures taken after the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Washington wants a longer-term deal with Iran in order to control Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Under the current deal, limitations on Iran's nuclear activities will be lifted within a few years as President Donald Trump mentioned twice during the week. He even talked about a 100-year deal with Iran and more options about inspecting Iran's nuclear establishments.

Tehran refuses to agree to come to the negotiating table to address problems about the nuclear deal, as well as discussing other issues such as its ballistic missile program and its interventions in regional affairs that has caused serious concerns among regional countries and international players.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on July 20 suggested considering the ratification of Iran's commitment to the International Atomic Energy Agency's additional protocol to ensure unlimited inspection of Tehran's nuclear establishments, but Washington will reportedly not accept any commitment in this regard unless it is officially declared by Khamenei, who has the final say about Iran's foreign policy.

Iran is currently adhering to the additional protocol as a voluntary measure, but it has been reducing its commitment to the nuclear deal during recent months to exert pressure on Europe to save the current nuclear deal and help Iran conduct oil exports and banking operations in spite of U.S. sanctions.