Britain’s anger over tanker’s seizure is misplaced - GulfToday

Britain’s anger over tanker’s seizure is misplaced

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 anchored after British Royal Marines seized it off the coast of Gibraltar. Reuters

Britain’s outrage over the seizure by Iranian naval commandos of an oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz is misplaced. Britain launched the tanker-snatching competition on July 4th when Royal Marines boarded and took charge of a supertanker, Grace 1, loaded with Iranian oil as it sailed past the British-overseas territory of Gibraltar while entering the Mediterranean.

Britain initially agreed to release Grace 1 if Iran gave assurances that the oil on board would not be delivered to the Syrian refinery at Banias in breach of European Union (EU) sanctions. Iran replied by saying the tanker was not bound for Syria but another country in the Mediterranean without revealing which because of US sanctions on anyone buying Iranian oil. In any case, Iran is not a member of the EU and is not bound by EU measures against Syria. Instead of following through with a British proposal to free the tanker, Gibraltar’s Supreme Court last Friday extended the detention of  Grace 1 for 30 days.

In response, the Iranians detained two ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the British-flagged Stena Impero, which remains in Iranian custody, and the Liberian-registered, Glasglow-based Mesdar which was briefly boarded before being allowed to proceed.

At the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., a senior US intelligence officer, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that the Iranians “look for things that are proportional in nature. They aren’t looking to go to war but at the same time they are looking to project strength.”

Iran now has two ships in custody, MT Riah, a formerly Panamian-flagged tanker accused of smuggling oil, crude smuggling being widely practiced in the Gulf, and the Swedish-owned Stena Impero, which the Iranians have accused of colliding with and damaging an Iranian fishing boat and failing to offer assistance mandated under international law and the law of the sea. Britain has demanded the release of the Stena Impero and, naturally, has the support of the US, Germany, Franc and Nato.   Curiously, Britain is not interested in MT Riah captured by Iran on July 14th.

Donald Trump’s reaction was typical of him: he blamed events in the Gulf on someone else although he is personally and solely responsible.  He said, “This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble, nothing but trouble.” He is wrong - as usual.

Trump is “trouble,” big trouble.  He has escalated tensions in the Gulf by unilaterally pulling the US out of the 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. This deal was forged over a dozen years and concluded during the Obama administration. Trump had no right to withdraw as the deal had been negotiated and signed not only by the US but by Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany and had the backing of the EU.  Trump subsequently re-imposed US sanctions on Iran and has threatened any country, firm or individual with sanctions for trading with Iran. While Trump has, at least for now, ruled out military action against Iran. He is waging economic war on its citizens by depriving their country of oil and non-oil revenues, which provide essential food, medicines and spare parts for life-saving medical equipment, aircraft, and vehicles.  This amounts to two war crimes: denial of humanitarian supplies and collective punishment.

According to Spanish officials, the British government had been told to snatch Grace 1 by the Trump regime, which had been tracking the ship on its long voyage from Iranian shores around Africa to the Mediterranean. National security hardliner John Bolton is said to have ordered this operation.

Until the snatch off Gibraltar, Britain had joined with France and Germany in an effort to mediate between Tehran and Washington over the nuclear deal. By capitulating to the Trump administration, Britain lost whatever credibility it might have had with Tehran. This also goes for Germany and France, which have backed Britain. Therefore, the Grace 1 snatch can be counted as a coup for Bolton who makes no secret that he wants the US to go to war with Iran.

Whenever Britain is under US pressure, it normally succumbs, arguing it must maintain the so-called “special relationship” between the two Anglo-powers.  As Brexit looms, Britain has become politically captive of the Trump regime because London will lose whatever independence it dared exhibit as a member. Trump is said to want Britain to exit the nuclear deal as well as the EU.

The US has called for a maritime protection coalition consisting of warships from countries exporting Gulf oil.  Britain has already deployed Royal Navy vessels to protect the 15-30 British-registered tankers operating in the Gulf.

India has two naval vessels there and is unlikely to join any US-founded coalition.  Britain is apparently unnerved by this plan because it has been proposed by the US. Japan, China and France have refused to join a grouping which could, because of Trump’s erratic policies be confrontational at one moment and conciliatory the next. US Gulf allies argue they have already deployed ships to provide security and fear the waterway could become crowded. Trump is his own worst enemy.     

Trump has tried to de-escalate by offering to negotiate with Iran without preconditions and asked Republican maverick Senator Rand Paul to mediate. A longstanding opponent of US intervention in Iran, Paul met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York last week but the two men made no comments on the encounter.  Zarif has said that it is up to the US to de-escalate but suggested Iran might agree to more intrusive international inspections under the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in exchange for lifting sanctions.

While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards oppose talking to Trump, at least one hardliner, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad favours talks. His support for this course of action is surprising because Ahmadinejad has been demonised as a Holocaust denier and vehement US opponent.

While Western powers bicker over the actions of Washington and London, Syrians, like Iranians, suffer. Starving Syria of oil should be declared a violation of international humanitarian law. British politicians and commentators argue Russia can supply Syria’s needs. This is manifestly untrue.

Most of the crude bound for Syria is for civilian consumption. Oil provides power for the country’s electricity plants, water pumping stations, civilian vehicles, bakeries, groceries, hospitals, clinics, schools, industries, and all manner of other endeavours.  During 2017, following the return of government control to insurgent-held eastern Aleppo city, Damascus and its suburbs and Homs had uninterrupted electricity supplies. Aleppo had cuts during the day to give priority to industries, which were struggling to recover from warfare. Today, due to shortages of oil and natural gas, power cuts have resumed and Syrians have to obtain smart cards to purchase rationed petrol and cooking gas. Fuel for generators is not available. Trump and his allies have gone too far. Sanctioning oil should also be a war crime.

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