On July 4, British special forces helped seize the Grace 1, a supertanker bound for Syria, off Gibraltar.
It was carrying Iranian oil and according to Gibraltar, the crude was headed to Banyas Refinery, a sanctioned facility in Syria. “With my consent, our Port and Law Enforcement agencies sought the assistance of the Royal Marines in carrying out this operation”, Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said, adding that he had “written… to the Presidents of the European Commission and Council, setting out the details of the sanctions which we have enforced”.
Needless to say, Iran was not pleased. Tehran denied the crude was headed for Syria and, a day later, former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei, suggested Iran respond. “If England does not release the Iranian oil tanker [our duty] is to respond and seize one English oil tanker”, he said.
Fast forward a week and the IRGC attempted to stop the BP-operated British Heritage from passing through the Strait of Hormuz. We say “tried”, because the Royal Navy stepped in and that, apparently, was the end of that.
“Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz [and The HMS Montrose] was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away”, the UK Defense Ministry said, adding that events unfolded in international waters.
The British Heritage then went on its happy way.
The incident took place not far from where the IRGC shot done a US drone last month and near the site of the infamous tanker attacks that ratcheted up tensions between Tehran and the rest of the world.
Predictably, the IRGC says it doesn’t know anything about this. “There has been no confrontation in the last 24 hours with any foreign vessels, including British ones”, the Guards said in a statement. But Iranian media reiterated that the if the navy “receives an order to seize foreign ships, forces can act fast, with determination and without hesitation within the geographic scope of its mission”. Apparently there’s a caveat to that about not wanting to risk going to war with Britain.
This comes days after Iran confirmed that it breached another key element of the nuclear accord pending action by the EU to bring the US back into the deal. Tehran has spent months pressuring the European powers to do more to help the country sell its crude and cushion the blow from draconian US sanctions. A special purpose vehicle, Instex, designed to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran, reportedly lacks the ability to process large oil transactions, something Iranian negotiators have suggested makes the SPV largely useless.
The maritime spat between Iran and the UK makes it much more difficult for Europe to act as a mediator between Tehran and Washington, especially now that the Iranians have breached both a stockpile limit on nuclear fuel and an enrichment cap.
“We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region”, the UK defense ministry said Thursday, of the latest tanker incident.
According to CNN, a US aircraft hovering overheard recorded the episode.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman James Slack says May is “continuously monitoring” the situation.