A senior Iranian official has threatened to seize a British oil tanker in retaliation for the United Kingdom's boarding and seizure of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar over suspected sanctions violations yesterday. The incident comes as Iran says it will begin enriching uranium in violation a controversial international agreement that the United Kingdom, along with France and Germany, have been struggling to salvage after the U.S. government pulled out last year. It also follows a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and as tensions between the United States and Iran have pushed those two countries worryingly close to open conflict.
Mohsen Rezaei, who is presently the Secretary of Iran's Expediency Discernment Council, made the threat on Twitter on July 5, 2019. The Expediency Discernment Council serves as an advisory body to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and reportedly has powerful supervisory functions across the country's government. Rezaei was also previously head of the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and may still be a member of that organization. The U.S. government has also blamed the IRGC for two separate sets of attacks on a total of six oil tankers between May and June 2019. The IRGC also took responsibility for shooting down a U.S. Navy drone in June, which almost prompted U.S. military action against Iran.
"If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities' duty to seize a British oil tanker," Rezaei wrote on Twitter. He also said that Iran would respond "without hesitation" to "bullying" from other countries.
Iran has already summoned the U.K. ambassador in Tehran to lodge a formal protest about the seizure of Grace 1, which Iranian authorities have branded as illegal and a "form of piracy." British authorities have, not surprisingly, dismissed this characterization of the situation.
Approximately 30 Marines from 42 Commando, Royal Marines, assisted in the operation to take control of the tanker on July 4, 2019. A number of them rappeled onto the ship's deck from a Royal Navy AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat helicopter, while others, along with additional security forces personnel from Gibraltar, arrived on small boats. The War Zone just recently published an in-depth feature covering how these types of boarding operations get planned and executed, which you can read here.
The exact chain of events that led to the mission remains curiously murky. British authorities have said they suspect Grace 1 of carrying Iranian oil bound for the Baniyas Refinery in Syria's port city of Tartus. Baniyas is under European Union sanctions over Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and his government's actions during the country's brutal civil war.
However, Spain, which disputes British control over Gibraltar and does not recognize the waters around the territory as being under the control of the United Kingdom, has claimed that U.K. personnel seized the tanker at the request of the United States. The U.S. government has its own sanctions in place targeting all exports of Iranian oil to any destination, which has been a serious blow to Iran as oil sales are a major source of the country's income. Spanish authorities say they are preparing to make their formal complaint about the incident, but over violation of what they say is their sovereign territory.
There are also reports that U.S. government did provide intelligence about the Grace 1 to the British to enable to seizure. On July 4, 2019, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton sent a tweet praising the operation, but also corroborated the British position that the mission was in response to E.U. rather than American sanctions.
"Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace 1 laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions," he wrote. "America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade."
It's not clear why the Iranian tanker was even sailing past Gibraltar in the first place, as it would have been a much shorter route to sail to Syria from Iran by way of the Suez Canal. Some have also suggested that this circuitous route might have been supposed to help the tanker escape interdiction, but its not clear why this would have been the case. It seems much more likely that this had to do with reports in April 2019 that Egypt, which controls the Suez, had begun blocking access to Iranian tankers headed for Syrian ports.
Grace 1's general legal status, by itself, is another issue. The ship still carries indicating that it is registered in Panama, despite Panamanian authorities saying they delisted it in May 2019 after the Panamanian National Security Council issued a notice saying that it "may be participating in terrorism financing, in support of the destabilizing activities of some regions led by terrorist groups."
Whether or not Iran decides to follow through on Rezaei's tit-for-tat threat remains to be seen. It is certainly true that Iran, and the IRGC especially, routinely makes grandiose threats, or otherwise highlights its ability to do so, without following through.
At the same time, Rezaei himself has a very notable history of speaking his mind, including reportedly telling then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988 that Iran could not win the war against Iraq. In 1997, he was formally ejected from the IRGC, purportedly, in part, over his indifference to perceived threats of a potential American attack. In 2009, he criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for questioning the Holocaust, saying the comments were "not useful" and threatened future rapprochement with the U.S. government.
But it would also not be the first time Iran has seized a foreign commercial ship or directly retaliated against the United Kingdom. In 2015, the IRGC briefly took control of the Danish-owned container ship Maersk Tigris, which is flagged in the Marshall Islands, over a legal dispute. Just on July 4, the Maersk Line announced it would be adding a "war risk" surcharge to any shipments passing though the Persian Gulf owing to current regional tensions.
In 2007, the IRGC also detained 15 members of the British Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf for nearly two weeks. The sailors, then assigned to the Type 22 HMS Cornwall, had been searching a merchant ship at the time. Iran claimed that they were in Iranian waters, while the British said the operation had been in Iraqi waters. This incident was somewhat reminiscent of the IRGC's detention of a number of U.S. Navy sailors in the Persian Gulf in 2016.
Iran is also increasingly in a dispute with the United Kingdom and other European countries over the fate of the controversial deal over its nuclear program. The United States pulled out of this agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018, leaving the remaining parties to try and salvage it. Iran recently accused the United Kingdom, France, and Germany of failing to uphold their obligations and now says that it will begin enriching uranium to levels above the JCPOA's limits, which threatens to upend the deal for good. The concern is that Iran growing its stockpiling of enriched uranium could reduce the time necessary to "break out" and build nuclear weapons should it decide to do so.
On top of all this, the seizure of Grace 1 and Rezaei's threat come at a time when tensions between the United States and Iran are at a recent high, which has raised concerns about potential risks to commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and the general geopolitical situation across the Middle East. In May 2019, four oil tankers suffered attacks in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The following month, attackers used limpet mines to damage two tankers in an area of the Gulf of Oman that is closer to Iranian waters.
The United States has presented a steady flow of evidence tying Iran, or its proxies, to the second set of attacks, and U.S. officials blame the Iranians for the first incident, as well. Iran has strenuously denied involvement and no group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks. The IRGC did admit to shooting down a U.S. Navy drone in late June 2019, though, which nearly led to U.S. strikes on Iranian targets.
There are now reports that the U.S. government is looking to establish a new coalition in the region to both protect commercial shipping and monitor Iranian activity in case of further attacks. American officials, including President Donald Trump, have pointedly asked other countries to step up and contribute more to safeguarding freedom of navigation and maritime trade in the region.
India has sent a contingent of naval vessels to the region for this purpose, but, so far, it is unclear if any other country has or is preparing to follow suit. The United Kingdom has officially denied reports in June that it was sending a contingent of Royal Marines to the region to help guard its shipping interests.
For its part, Iran has said that the only way forward is for the U.S. government to ease its sanctions, something the Trump Administration is disinclined to do given its policy of "maximum pressure."
But, regardless of whether it was U.S. or E.U. sanctions that actually triggered the seizure of the Grace 1, the incident does show that Iran is facing increasing pressure from more than just the United States. While Rezaei's threat seems intended to stress to other countries that they face increased risks if they align themselves with U.S. government policies, Iran has to know that actually seizing foreign commercial ships could just as easily inflame international opinion against them.
As his comments have in the past, Rezaei's statement may actually reflect an increasingly contentious discussion within Iran about how best to proceed amid growing international pressure.
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