Pressure tactics in the Persian Gulf

Print edition : August 17, 2019

The impounded Iranian crude oil tanker, Grace 1, sits anchored off the coast of Gibraltar, on July 20. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Bloomberg

President Donald Trump signing an executive order to increase sanctions on Iran in Washington D.C., on June 24. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Iranain Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: Drew Angerer/AFP

Tension escalates in the Persian Gulf as Britain impounds an Iranian oil tanker. But Iran’s strategy of “equal response” against any aggression from the U.S. and its allies makes the Trump administration settle for a “fair deal”.

As almost all military experts and commentators have been warning, the standoff in the Persian Gulf triggered by the United States could ignite a military confrontation that could engulf the entire region and have repercussions around the world. A new sequence of events started when the Royal Navy impounded an Iran-owned 30,000-tonne supertanker carrying two million barrels of oil in the Strait of Gibraltar in the first week of July. The British government claimed that the ship was impounded on the request of the authorities in Gibraltar, a British territory on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

Britain said the ship was carrying oil to be delivered at a Syrian port, contravening the European Union (E.U.) sanctions on trade with Syria. It was clear at the outset that the ship was impounded under the orders of the U.S. administration, that too at a time when Britain, France and Germany, which are signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, were supposed to be doing their best to ease the effects of the draconian sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S. Iran had requested the E.U. countries to initiate action to counteract the adverse impact of the sanctions on its people. The European leaders, while advising Iran to exercise patience, looked the other way as the Donald Trump administration began tightening the economic noose around Tehran.

At a time when Iran is desperately trying to export its oil to customers who are willing to buy it, Britain has gone ahead and precipitated another crisis by seizing the Iranian tanker. Iran maintained that the ship was not heading to Syria and that the oil was supposed to be delivered to another country. Britain is aware that no Syrian port is capable of receiving a big ship. Besides, the British authorities know that the E.U. sanctions on trade with Syria do not apply to Iran.

Calling the seizure of the ship “an act of piracy”, Iran urged Britain to release the tanker and its crew, which included Indians. The Iranian Foreign Ministry warned Britain “against entering a dangerous game with no end in sight under the influence of the Americans”. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quick to warn Britain of the “consequences” of the move.

Within days of Tehran’s warning, a British ship proceeding to collect oil from Basra was accosted by an Iranian naval patrol in the Strait of Hormuz. The ship had to turn back under British naval escort. The incident was meant to sound a warning, but the British government tried to portray it as an act of aggression by Iran. Iran pointed out that the incident happened in an area in the Strait of Hormuz over which it had territorial sovereignty.

Trump’s threats

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a call for “maximum restraint” in the Persian Gulf region at a time when the Trump administration was exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran.

Trump has been making threats to obliterate Iran and has openly admitted to the waging of an economic warfare against Iran and its people. He said that the U.S. would cobble up an anti-Iran naval coalition in the Persian Gulf. In the third week of July, the U.S. announced that it was sending its troops to Saudi Arabia. Iran is already surrounded by a string of U.S. military bases.

On July 19, two weeks after the impounding of the Iranian ship by the British, Iran announced that it had taken into custody a British oil tanker, “Stenna Impero”, on charges of “breaching international maritime law”. On the same day, the Gibraltar Supreme Court ruled that the ship impounded by Britain would not be released any time soon. The ruling on the extension of the ship’s detention came after a meeting between Gibraltar Chief Minister Gabriel Pinalto and British Prime Minister Theresa May. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made it clear that the decision on the ship was made in London.

A statement from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran said that the British oil tanker was detained at the “request of the Hormuzgan Ports and Maritime Organisation for failing to recognise international maritime rules”. According to the IRGC, the ship violated “three international naval regulations”, including turning off the GPS, breaking the traffic pattern in the Strait of Hormuz and polluting the water by dumping crude oil residue. The tanker was shifted to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, and all the 23 members of the crew, 18 of them Indians, including the captain, were kept on board the ship pending investigations. India has called on Iran for the early repatriation of the Indian sailors. The IRGC detained a second British tanker temporarily. Iranian authorities let it go after warning it to abide by international environmental regulations.

Iran’s influential Guardian Council, which has a say in foreign policy matters, stated that the seizure of the British ship was “a reciprocal action” in retaliation for the British seizure of the Iranian ship. “The rule of reciprocal action is well known in international law,” a spokesman for the IRGC said.

Justifying the seizure of the Iranian ship on the grounds that it was contravening E.U. sanctions, Foreign Secretary Hunt said that Iran had violated international law. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tried to convince his British counterpart to release the ship. Hunt, who is engaged in a losing contest for the Prime Minister’s post in Britain, preferred to take a tough line, at the behest of the U.S.

The U.S. and the U.K. have always acted in tandem on Iran. Their despicable role in the overthrow of Iran’s first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh in the 1950s, is well documented. That incident is embedded in the national psyche of Iran. Trump was quick to condemn Iran’s seizure of the British ship. Germany and France, too, joined the chorus of criticism. The three countries had no words of criticism for the British interception and capture of the Iranian ship in international waters.

The actions of the European countries reinforce the Iranian view that they are not serious about salvaging the JCPOA. Britain had ostensibly joined France and Germany in preserving the deal by trying to set up an alternative trading platform through which Iran could evade U.S. sanctions. The British government accepted that Iran was largely justified in increasing its uranium enrichment levels as a response to the Trump administration abrogating the JCPOA. Britain insists that it is committed to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Recent events have shown that the commitment is skin deep at the most.

The seizure of the British ship came just a day after Trump announced the shooting down of an Iranian drone by a U.S. warship. However, the spokesman for the Iranian army, Gen. Abolfazi Shekarchi, said that it was a “false claim rooted in Trump’s illusions”. After Trump’s initial claims, the U.S. military stopped talking about the alleged downing of an Iranian drone. It seems that the Pentagon is keen to settle scores with Tehran for the loss of its drone over Iranian territorial waters in June.

A cat-and-mouse game seems to be on in the Persian Gulf. Iran has taken care to ensure that the actions it has taken so far were carried out inside its territorial waters. During the last days of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian plane, with 290 people on board, over the Persian Gulf. The U.S. claims that it was an accident, but many Iranians still have suspicions about the 1988 downing of the Iran Air Airbus 300. Accident or not, incidents such as that one are waiting to occur if tensions in the Persian Gulf are not resolved soon.

After the shooting down of the U.S. drone in June, there was a real threat of war breaking out. Trump claimed at the time that he had called off a U.S. missile strike on Iran just 10 minutes before it was due to be launched. Iran as well as the military leadership had stated at the time that they would not have stood aside if the U.S. had launched an attack. After waiting for 15 months for the European signatories to the JCPOA to act and provide sanctions relief, Iran has given up its policy of “maximum patience”.

President Rouhani has adopted a strategy of “equal response” against any aggression from the U.S. or its allies. Iran has built a vast network of underground military facilities along its coastline in anticipation of a U.S. attack. Iran and its allies have developed formidable asymmetrical military capabilities across the region. The Hizbollah chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, warned that his forces would spring to Iran’s aid if the Trump administration carried out its military threats.

U.S. sanctions

The Trump administration imposed more sanctions on Iran after the downing of the U.S. drone. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Foreign Minister Zarif were among the top officials against whom sanctions have been imposed. Zarif, who spent many years studying in the U.S. and was the key Iranian interlocutor in the nuclear deal, was confined to the U.N. building in New York and the Iranian embassy compound during his recent visit there. The new U.S. sanctions barred him from even travelling within New York City.

Zarif’s visit to New York in the third week of July coincided with signals from the Trump administration that it was willing to start talking to Iran. The last thing Trump wants is a full-scale war before he is up for re-election. He is now saying that all he wants is “a fair deal” with Iran. There has been talk that Trump is going to appoint the anti-war Republican Senator Rand Paul as an emissary to Iran. Iran has always said that it is ready for talks provided the unilateral U.S. sanctions are lifted immediately. During his visit, Zarif reiterated that Iran would never give up its defensive missile programme, a key demand of the Trump administration, as long as the U.S. supplied sophisticated missiles and armaments to its adversaries in the Gulf. Zarif also said that Iran could “reverse” its uranium enrichment if sanctions were lifted.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, however, is on record stating that U.S. sanctions will be lifted only after Iran permanently ends its production of nuclear fuel, gives up its medium-range missiles and ends its support for terrorist groups. The U.S. deems Hamas and Hizbollah, which Iran supports, as “terrorist” groups.

No self-respecting Iranian government will accept the conditions laid down by the Trump administration. As Zarif stated in New York, Iran signed a historic agreement with the U.S. government and not with individuals. The only way out of the impasse and to keep war from breaking out at this juncture was to keep channels of communication open and hopefully wait for the demise of the Trump administration in 2020. “We will survive, we will prosper long after President Trump is gone,” Zarif told the media in New York, pointing out that Iran had a glorious history that was 7,000 years old. “Our time slots are in millennia,” he said.

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