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Iran claims to have seized British oil tanker in strait of Hormuz

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claimed on Friday evening to have seized a British oil tanker, the Stena Impero, which suddenly veered off course and headed into Iranian waters.

The ship’s owners issued a statement saying that at 3pm GMT (7pm local time), the ship had been “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.

“We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran,” the owners, Stena Bulk, and the ship’s managers, Northern Marine, said.

The Revolutionary Guards issued a statement saying they had seized the Stena Impero, citing international maritime law for their actions. Iran had been complaining bitterly about the detention by UK forces of an Iranian tanker two weeks ago off Gibraltar.

The seizure of the Stena Impero came on a day when the Gibraltar authorities announced their were extending their custody of the Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, suspected of shipping oil to Syria. Tehran denounced the detention of the Grace 1 as piracy carried out on orders from Washington. Iranian politicians have been calling for reprisals.

The Stena Impero, a 30,000 tonne British-flagged and Swedish-owned ship, had been heading for Saudi Arabia, when it abruptly left the international sea lanes through the strait of Hormuz and tracking data showed it heading north towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, where the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has a substantial base.

In London, there were reports that the government’s emergency response committee, Cobra, was being convened. The Ministry of Defence stressed it had ships in the area but could not provide any further details of what had happened.

Donald Trump, the US president, said on Friday evening that the US would talk to Britain about the seizure of the British tanker, Reuters reported.

“We are aware of reports that Iranian forces seized a British oil tanker,” the chief spokesman for the US national security council, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement. “This is the second time in just over a week the UK has been the target of escalatory violence by the Iranian regime.”

“The US will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran’s malign behaviour,” Marquis said.

Hours before the Stena Impero was diverted from its course, the authorities in Gibraltar had announced that their would continue to hold the Grace 1, the Iranian tanker seized by Britain’s Royal Marines on 4 July, on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria, in violation of an EU embargo.

gulf map

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard made an initial attempt to capture a British tanker six days after the Grace 1 was first seized. On 10 July, a British warship, the HMS Montrose, intervened to drive three Iranian military vessels that were attempting to divert a UK tanker, the British Heritage, towards Iranian territory.

The incident comes in the midst of a battle of nerves along the oil export routes of the Gulf, which has involved close encounters between, Iranian, UK and US military forces.

On Friday, Tehran denied Trump’s claim that US forces had downed a Iranian drone over the Gulf. Iran’s top military spokesman said all drones had returned safely to base, but Trump was adamant.

“No doubt about it … we shot it down,” the US president said.

The latest drone incident was first revealed by Trump, who said that USS Boxer took defensive action after the unmanned vehicle came within 1,000 yards of the warship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.

“The drone was immediately destroyed,” Trump said, adding that unmanned aircraft had threatened the safety of the American ship and its crew. He called on other countries to condemn Iran and protect their own ships.

The prospect of negotiations that might defuse the standoff appeared more distant than ever on Friday as a senior US administration official dismissed a nuclear offer proposed the previous date by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, during a visit to New York. The official suggested the offer was not serious and called for “an actual decision maker” to enter talks to “end Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions”.

Trump has vacillated on what he wants Iran to do in return for a lifting of the oil and banking embargo the US has imposed since walking out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in May last year. The sharp response to Zarif’s offer suggests that administration hardliners, led by the national security adviser, John Bolton, are currently running Iran policy.

Zarif proposed that Iran’s parliament immediately ratify acceptance of a permanent regime of intrusive international inspections, known as the Additional Protocol, designed to ensure Iran was not building nuclear weapons covertly. Iran is currently observing the protocol under the terms of the JCPOA, and was due to ratify it, cementing it into law, in October 2023.

Zarif offered to bring that forward by more than four years, in return for immediate sanctions relief. The offer was never likely to be accepted – the US has an expansive list of demands concerning Iran’s activities – but it signal a willingness to do a deal with Washington outside the framework of the JCPOA. The US reaction, however, was scathing.

“The president has repeatedly said he is willing to have a conversation with Iranian leaders. If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately and having an actual decision maker attempt to negotiate a deal that includes a permanent end to Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles,” a senior administration official said.

Iran has consistently refused to give up uranium enrichment, which can be for both civilian and military purposes. Efforts by previous US administrations to stop it led to an exponential expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity. The JCPOA accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium but imposed strict limits on that and other elements of the nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.

With the negotiating gap between Washington and Tehran as wide as ever, the contest between the two countries has shifted increasingly to the Gulf.

In July 2015, Iran and a six-nation negotiating group reached a landmark agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that ended a 12-year deadlock over Tehran’s nuclear programme. The deal, struck in Vienna after nearly two years of intensive talks, limited the Iranian programme, to reassure the rest of the world that it cannot develop nuclear weapons, in return for sanctions relief.

At its core, the JCPOA is a straightforward bargain: Iran’s acceptance of strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for an escape from the sanctions that grew up around its economy over a decade prior to the accord. Under the deal, Iran unplugged two-thirds of its centrifuges, shipped out 98% of its enriched uranium and filled its plutonium production reactor with concrete. Tehran also accepted extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has verified 10 times since the agreement, and as recently as February, that Tehran has complied with its terms. In return, all nuclear-related sanctions were lifted in January 2016, reconnecting Iran to global markets.

The six major powers involved in the nuclear talks with Iran were in a group known as the P5+1: the UN security council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and Germany. The nuclear deal is also enshrined in a UN security council resolution that incorporated it into international law. The 15 members of the council at the time unanimously endorsed the agreement.

On 8 May 2018, US president Donald Trump pulled his country out of the deal. Iran announced its partial withdrawal from the nuclear deal a year later.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Iran correspondent

The Gibraltar supreme court’s extended the detention the Grace 1 vessel at a hearing on Friday after Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, held talks with Iranian officials at the UK Foreign Office in London on Thursday. Picardo also held talks with Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary.

The UK has been seeking legal assurances that the tanker, if released, will not travel to Syria to unload 2.1m barrels of oil if released, as it was suspected of attempting when detained.

Tehran says it is not party to an EU embargo and insists that the ship was not bound for Syria. Zarif, who was in New York on Thursday, has refused to offer an alternative destination for the ship, saying it was is not in Iran’s interests to reveal how it is seeking to avoid a US-imposed embargo on all Iranian oil exports. The UK Foreign Office remains certain the destination was Syria.

Bob Sanguinetti, the chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said: “We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero … Our priority is for the safety and welfare of the crew. We call on the UK government to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safe and swift return.

“This incident represents an escalation. Whilst we call for measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region.”

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