August 20, 2019
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Iran's seizure of British oil tanker ratchets up tensions in the Gulf

Marina Villen

Tehran, Jul 19 (efe-epa).- Iran's seizure Friday of a UK-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz two weeks after Britain's Royal Navy seized an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar threatened to aggravate tensions in the region.

Having threatened more than once to respond to the capture of their ship near Gibraltar, a British Crown Colony, the Iranians appear to have made good on the threat by seizing the Stena Impero.

Tasnim, a news agency with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said that Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization asked the military to escort the tanker to the port of Bandar Abbas after receiving reports that the Stena Impero was "causing problems."

The vessel deactivated its GPS beacon, entered the Strait of Hormuz at the wrong end and failed to reply to warnings, Tasnim said.

Shortly after Iran announced the seizure of the Stena Impero, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the Iranians also captured a UK-owned, Liberian-flagged ship, calling Tehran's actions "completely unacceptable."

But Tasnim and Iranian state television said that military officers boarded the second ship, the Mesdar, and then allowed it to go on its way after a discussion about "maritime safety."

The operator of the Mesdar, Norbulk Shipping UK, said that it had re-established communication with the ship and that all 25 people aboard were "safe and well."

Stena Bulk, who own the Stena Impero, said that the last communication from the ship was at 15.00 GMT, when the captain reported the approach of several smaller boats and a helicopter.

The Impero, which has a crew of 23, was en route from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia when it was intercepted.

"We are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences," Jeremy Hunt said. "We are not looking at military options. We are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve this situation but we are very clear that it must be resolved."

The United Kingdom and Iran resumed full diplomatic relations in 2014.

Friday's incidents in the Strait of Hormuz happened just hours after a court in Gibraltar ordered the Iranian vessel Grace 1 held for another 30 days. The ship has been under the control of British officials since the Royal Navy seized it two weeks ago.

The UK said it was acting on suspicion that the Grace 1 was carrying crude oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions against that country's government.

Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Tuesday that the Royal Navy committed an "act of maritime piracy" and vowed his country would respond "at the appropriate moment."

Last week, London said that a Royal Navy ship had to intervene to prevent the Iranians from intercepting a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf, but Tehran dismissed the UK account as a fabrication.

The IRGC said Thursday that they had seized last weekend a "foreign" vessel engaged in smuggling, providing images of a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by a company in Abu Dhabi.

News of the capture of the British tanker comes a day after President Donald Trump said that a US Navy ship shot down an Iranian drone.

Iran denied losing a drone, but Trump and other US officials insisted Friday that the Iranian unmanned aircraft was destroyed.

Tensions in the Persian Gulf have increased in the last few months amid attacks on oil tankers that Washington blamed on Iran and the June 19 shootdown of a US surveillance drone that Tehran says violated its airspace, though the Pentagon said the aircraft was flying over international waters.

The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel between Iran and Oman, is used to transport 20 percent of global oil shipments, and Tehran has threatened to close the waterway if US sanctions cut off Iranian exports of crude.

Trump, despite steadily expanding the US military presence in the region, insists that he does not want war with Iran, pushing instead for a dialogue along the lines of the one he has pursued with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Iranian leaders, however, reject the idea of any negotiations until and unless Trump brings the US back into the multilateral 2015 pact under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear power program in return for relief from economic sanctions.

Washington pulled out of the accord in May 2018 and has imposed increasingly severe sanctions with the proclaimed intent of crushing the Iranian economy. EFE

Related content

Trump insists US downed Iranian drone; Tehran offers video to counter claim

Washington, Jul 19 (efe-epa).- President Donald Trump insisted Friday that a US Navy ship patrolling the Strait of Hormuz shot down an Iranian drone, but the government in Tehran released video it says shows the drone returned to base unharmed.

"No doubt about it, no - we shot it down," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office during an event with the two surviving astronauts from the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

The president said Thursday that an Iran drone was "immediately destroyed" as it was "threatening the safety" of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer and its crew.

Iran, however, has denied the US account.

"We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else," Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi said on Twitter. "I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own (drone) by mistake!"

The US will respond in the event of further "provocations" by Iran, Trump said Friday, dismissing the idea that he feared a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

"We have the greatest people in the world, we have the greatest equipment in the world, we have the greatest ships - the most deadly ships, we don't want to have to use them, but they're the most deadly ships ever conceived," the president said. "And we hope for their (Iran's) sake they don't do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody's ever paid a price."

In Tehran, meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) released a video Friday purportedly consisting of images captured by the drone the US says it shot down.

Broadcast on state television, the seven-minute-long clip is accompanied by a time stamp and includes footage of six different vessels, one of them identified as the USS Boxer.

The drone monitored the ships from the moment they entered the Strait of Hormuz and detected no "unconventional or threatening action" by the vessels before returning to base intact after three hours aloft, the IRGC said.

All of the Iranian drones operating over the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz are accounted for, the armed forces spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdolfazl Shakarchi, said.

Tensions in the Persian Gulf have increased in the last few months amid attacks on oil tankers that Washington blamed on Iran and the June 19 shootdown of a US surveillance drone that Tehran says violated its airspace, though the Pentagon said the aircraft was flying over international waters.

Trump, despite steadily expanding the US military presence in the region, insists that he does not want war with Iran, pushing instead for a dialogue along the lines of the one he has pursued with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Iranian leaders, however, reject the idea of any negotiations until and unless Trump brings the US back into the multilateral 2015 pact under which Tehran accepted limits on its nuclear power program in return for relief from economic sanctions.

Washington pulled out of the accord in May 2018 and has imposed increasingly severe sanctions with the proclaimed intent of crushing the Iranian economy.

Iran recently breached a central pillar of the nuclear deal by producing more than its 300-kg limit of enriched uranium.

While the Trump sanctions have focused on the Islamic Republic's banking and oil sectors, they have also effectively prevented Iran from exporting its excess enriched uranium.

The US move to block uranium exports left Tehran with a choice of either ending enrichment entirely or exceeding the stockpile limit.

EFE

llb-mv/dr

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