Gulf tensions boil over as Iran seizes UK oil tanker

Stena Impero. Credit: Hannes van Rijn

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on 19 July – escalating the rising diplomatic tensions between the two nations.

Bob Sanguinetti, CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said, “The chart released by Her Majesty’s government today clearly demonstrates that the Swedish-owned and British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, was in Oman territorial waters when it was boarded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on 19 July.”

Iranian state television claimed that the Revolutionary Guards took the Stena Impero because the vessel was “not following international maritime regulations”.

The seizure comes about two weeks after the Royal Navy detained the Iranian tanker Grace 1 in Gibraltar under suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria, Sanguinetti stressed that no comparison could be made between the two incidents as the actions carried out by Grace 1 constituted a breach of EU sanctions and the detainment was carried out under international law.

Over the weekend, the UK government convened at least two emergency meetings of national security officials to discuss the incident, a Downing Street spokesperson told CNN. In the interim, officials have warned British vessels to stay out of the Strait of Hormuz. One-third of the world’s seaborne oil – some 17 million barrels per day – passes through the strait, making it one of the most important oil trading routes in the world.

In comments reported by Sky News, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there would be consequences if Iran failed to return control of Stena Impero, although he said the UK was not presently considering military action.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, chancellor Phillip Hammond vowed that the UK would pursue “every possible diplomatic route” to resolve the situation. The vessel’s 23 crew members – who hail from Russia, India, Latvia, and the Philippines – have been removed from the ship for questioning, according to Iranian TV.

Guy Platten, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said, “Freedom of navigation is vital for global trade and we encourage all nations to uphold this fundamental principle of maritime law. In the 21st century it’s not acceptable for seafarers and ships to become pawns in any way, they must be allowed to operate in safety. We will be reviewing the situation and remain in contact with relevant authorities.”

Both the US and UK have pointed the finger at Tehran after six vessels were sabotaged in the Gulf in the past few months.

Dryad Global, a maritime security and risk-management consultancy, advised that all UK-flagged, managed or owned vessels should avoid transits of the Persian Gulf, unless a naval convoy can be guaranteed. Vessels must also consider that naval convoy is not a guaranteed failsafe against interception, as UK naval vessels will not have authority for use of lethal force in the absence of immediate threat to life.

Meanwhile, Nautilus International and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have joined the call for the urgent release of the crew from the seized British oil tanker and stressed the need for a diplomatic resolution to end the incident. “We’re shocked but not surprised by the developments in the Gulf. We’ve been raising our security concerns with the UK Chamber of Shipping repeatedly over recent weeks. I wrote to the minister of defence supporting and encouraging joint naval interventions in response to the heightening tensions in the Gulf. We call on the UK government to urgently engage in diplomatic efforts for the release of the vessel and crew,” said Nautilus International General-Secretary Mark Dickinson.