Global Tensions Mount Over Iran's Seizure of British Oil Tanker
By Steve Herman July 20, 2019
Global tensions continue to mount over Iran's seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, with Britain issuing a stern warning to Tehran and the Islamic Republic maintaining the seizure was a "reciprocal" move.
Britain's Foreign Office said Saturday it summoned Iran's Charge d'Affaires in London, one day after British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tehran "may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilizing behavior" and warned Britain's "reaction will be considered but robust."
Iran's powerful Guardian Council said Saturday the seizure was in response to Britain's participation in the capture two weeks ago of an Iranian oil tanker transporting more than 2 million gallons of Iranian crude oil near the British territory of Gibraltar on Spain's southern coast.
Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei told Iran's Fars News Agency "the rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law" and that Iran's seizure was justifiable given "the illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers."
U.S. President Donald Trump declared after Iran's Friday seizure that Iran is "nothing but trouble" and said the U.S. will "be working with the U.K." In response to a question from VOA on the White House South Lawn, Trump said "We have no written agreement [with the British], but I think we have an agreement that is long-standing."
Germany called for the release of the Swedish-owned, British-flagged Stena Impero, with its foreign ministry declaring Iran's seizure was a "dangerous further aggravation of an already tense situation."
France also called on Iran to release the vessel, saying the seizure "hampers a necessary de-escalation of tensions in the Gulf region."
Iran's maritime authorities had requested the capture of the Stena Impero for "not following international maritime regulations," according to the guard corps, which is a branch of the Iranian armed forces.
Personnel on board
The owners of the Stena Impero, which was heading to Saudi Arabia, say they have been unable to contact their vessel, with 23 personnel on board, which was "heading north towards Iran" after being approached by "unidentified small crafts and a helicopter" in the strait.
India said Saturday it was communicating with Iranian government officials in an attempt to secure the release of 18 of its nationals on the Stena Impero.
A Philippine government spokesman said the country's ambassador to Iran is in contact with Iranian authorities to ensure the release of a Filipino crew member.
Officials in London say a second British-owned Liberian-flagged oil tanker, the Mesdar, also was briefly detained by Iranian forces on Friday. The Mesdar's owner confirmed the vessel had been released and tracking date showed the tanker now was heading west Friday into the Persian Gulf.
British government officials are calling the detention of the two tankers a violation of the free passage of vessels in international waters.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown with Central Command, said Friday that unarmed surveillance aircraft are monitoring the Strait of Hormuz from international airspace, and said the U.S. military has contacted U.S. ships to ensure their safety.
In another development, state media in Saudi Arabia is reporting that the government has given approval to allow several hundred U.S. forces in the country to boost regional security. U.S. officials told the Associated Press that the move is meant to counter Iran, but said the action has been planned for weeks and is not a response to Friday's seizure of a British oil tanker.
Friday's actions by Tehran appeared to be in retaliation for the detention of a supertanker in the British Mediterranean territory of Gibraltar.
Authorities there on Friday extended for a 30-day period the holding of a Panamanian-flagged super tanker, the Grace 1. It was seized earlier this month by British Royal Marines off Gibraltar on suspicion of violating sanctions against Syria by attempting to transport Iranian crude oil to Syria.
Drone shot down
Earlier Friday, Trump expressed confidence an Iranian drone was downed Thursday in the strait as it approached a U.S. warship.
"No doubt about it. No. We shot it down," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
"There's no question that this was an Iranian drone," Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, chimed in. "The USS Boxer took it out as the president announced yesterday because it posed a threat to the ship and its crew. It was entirely the right thing to do."
Asked before news of the seizure of the oil tankers became public -- if he was worried about a broader clash with Iran in the Strait, Trump replied he was not.
"We hope for their sake they don't do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody's ever paid a price."
VOA later asked Trump if seizing the tankers was foolish, but he declined to answer specifically.
Speaking Friday at a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, U.S. Defense Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said Iran is at what he described as an inflection point due to ongoing economic strife as a result of U.S. sanctions.
"What you see is an attempt to break that status quo," Asley said.
"We saw this coming a couple of weeks out," he told the audience, adding that while Tehran does not want war, "there's always the possibility of miscalculation."
A senior administration official, earlier Friday, told reporters it is anticipated that the Defense Department will release video evidence of the drone shootdown.
Iran is denying the United States military shot down one of its drones.
"We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else," Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi posted on Twitter, adding he is "worried" the U.S. amphibious assault ship had shot down an American military drone "by mistake."
"The Iranians don't have a great history with the truth," responded a senior U.S. official to the assertion from Tehran. "They have a 40-year history of provoking us."
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.
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