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Iran seizes British tanker in Strait of Hormuz as tensions mount

Atta Kenare, AFP | Iranian troops take part in the "National Persian Gulf day" in the Strait of Hormuz, on April 30, 2019.

Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker Friday and briefly detained a second vessel in the Strait of Hormuz, intensifying tensions in the strategic waterway that has become a flashpoint between Tehran and the West.

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The seizing of the British tanker marked perhaps the most significant escalation since tensions between Iran and the West began rising in May. At that time, the US announced it was dispatching an aircraft carrier and additional troops to the Middle East, citing unspecified threats posed by Iran.

The ongoing showdown has caused jitters around the globe, with each manoeuvre bringing fear that any misunderstanding or misstep by either side could lead to war.

Details of what took place Friday remained sketchy after Iranreported that it had seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The strait at the mouth of the Persian Gulf is a shipping channel for one-fifth of all global crude exports.

The tanker, the Stena Impero, was taken to an Iranian port because it was not complying with “international maritime laws and regulations,” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard declared.

On Saturday, Allahmorad Afifipour, the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in the southern Hormozgan province, was quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency as saying that the crew was under investigation after the vessel was involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.

A statement from Stena Bulk, which owns the seized tanker, said it had been unable to make contact with the ship after it was approached by unidentified vessels and a helicopter in international waters. A spokesman for the company’s owners said the tanker was in “full compliance with all navigation and international regulations”.

The company said the tanker had 23 crew members of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationalities and there were no reports of any of them were injured.

UK threatens ‘serious consequences’

The UK has featured prominently in the recent tensions with Iran. Britain’s Royal Marines assisted in the seizure of an Iranian oil supertanker on July 4 by Gibraltar, a British overseas territory off the southern coast of Spain.

Britain said it would release the vessel if Iran could prove it was not breaching European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.

Gibraltar’s government said Friday that its Supreme Court had extended by 30 days the detention of the Panama-flagged Grace, which was loaded with over 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt initially said two ships were seized Friday in the Strait of Hormuz, the second sailing under a Liberian flag. The owner of that tanker later said the ship was briefly boarded by armed guards before being allowed to go. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency tweeted the vessel had left Iran’s territorial waters.

“These seizures are unacceptable,” Hunt said as he prepared to enter an emergency government meeting Friday night. “It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.”

“We’re not looking at military options, we’re looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation, but we are very clear that it must be resolved,” Hunt later told Sky News, warning that if the situation is not resolved quickly “there will be serious consequences”.

On Saturday the British Foreign Office summoned Iran's chargé d'affaires over the incident.

Germany and France called on Iran to release the tanker “without delay”.

US troops to Saudi Arabia

President Donald Trump said US officials would talk with Britain about the unfolding crisis.

“This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: Trouble, nothing but trouble,” he said.

Central Command said the US has intensified air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz in response to the seizure.

A Central Command spokesman, Lt. Col. Earl Brown, said a small number of additional patrol aircraft are flying in international airspace to monitor the situation.

The incident came two days after Washington claimed that a US warship downed an Iranian drone in the strait. Iran denied that it lost an aircraft in the area.

On June 20, Iran shot down an American drone in the same waterway, and Trump came close to retaliating but called off an airstrike at the last moment.

Tensions in the region have been escalating since Trump withdrew the US last year from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Iran, including its oil exports. The sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard.

The other partners in the nuclear deal - Germany, France, Britain, and the European Union - want to maintain the deal, but have not been able to address Iranian demands without violating the sanctions. Iran has begun breaching some of the restrictions on its activities outlined in the agreement to put pressure on them to find a solution.

The US, meanwhile, has asked Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in past weeks to contribute financially and militarily to a Trump administration proposal called the Sentinel Program - a coalition of nations working with the US to preserve maritime security in the Persian Gulf and keep eyes on Iran.

Late Friday, officials said the US is sending several hundred troops as well as aircraft and air defense missiles to Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. The move has been in the works for many weeks and is not a response to Friday’s seizure by Iran of a British tanker.

The arrangement was announced by the Saudi government, which said it was meant to “enhance security” in the region.

Six attacks on oil tankers

Maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz has deteriorated in recent weeks after six attacks on oil tankers that the US has blamed on Iran - an allegation the Islamic Republic denies.

There was also a brief, but tense standoff between the British navy and Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels recently. The British navy said it warned three Guard vessels away after they tried to impede the passage of a commercial British tanker that the navy was escorting.

The incidents have jolted the shipping industry, with some of the 2,000 companies operating ships in the region on high alert and many ordering their vessels to transit the Strait of Hormuz only during the daylight hours and at high speed.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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