The seizure of a British tanker is inextricably linked to US pressure on Tehran. Negotiation, not sanctions, is the answer
Sun 21 Jul 2019
It was like something out of a movie. To shouts of Allahu Akbar!, masked soldiers drop down ropes from a military helicopter on to a British oil tanker while Iranian navy speedboats surround the vessel. By radio, a voice warns the ship’s captain in English: “If you obey you will be safe”. There is no doubt that the Friday seizure by Iranian Revolutionary Guards of a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, was in part a piece of theatre intended to appease domestic clamour for Tehran to assert itself. It came in response to the UK military’s 4 July detention of an Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, in Gibraltar, allegedly for shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. But the tit-for-tat response should also be evaluated as part of the Iranian attempt to push back against Donald Trump’s unilateral abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and his reimposition of economic sanctions.
It is not clear if this strategy will do much to convince an exasperated Iranian public suffering under sanctions. It is also fraught with risks of escalation, threatening to further complicate UK-Iran bilateral relations and endanger wider European efforts to save the JCPOA, the international deal that committed Iran to strict curbs on its nuclear programme, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The risks are, at the moment, seen by Tehran as a necessary gamble to improve its international leverage if dipomatic negotiations resume. Two weeks of fruitless mediation efforts to release the Grace 1 prompted Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei to state: “The Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response.” It seems the Stena Impero is a pawn in a bigger game.