On 4 July, an Iranian supertanker, Grace One, was seized off Gibraltar. The tanker was suspected of transporting Iranian crude oil to Syria, which would breach EU sanctions. The following day, the Gibraltar Supreme Court granted a 14-day extension to the detainment, and the ship remains in British custody. Less than a week later, on 10 July, Iranian gunboats attempted to intercept a British oil tanker, British Heritage, in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran, however, denies involvement.
The UK’s detainment of the Iranian tanker faced heavy criticism from the Iranian government. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif questioned the legality of the UK’s actions, pointing out that ‘Iran is neither a member of the EU nor subject to any European oil embargo. Zarif added that Britain’s seizure of Grace 1 constituted ‘piracy’.
Others connected to the Iranian government warned of serious consequences. In a televised speech, Amir Hatami, the Defence Minister, told the audience that the seizure of the tanker was ‘similar to maritime robbery’ and that ‘this kind of robberies will not be tolerated.’ Revolutionary Guard Major General Mohsen Rezaee was more specific, tweeting: ‘If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities’ duty to seize a British oil tanker’ days before the incident in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s alleged attempt to intercept the British tanker and the reaction from government officials shows how seriously the Iranian government takes the UK’s seizure of Grace One. Amid rising tensions with the US and the 2015 nuclear deal’s endangerment, Iran cannot afford to appear weak on the global stage. Any sign of weakness could embolden the US to escalate the trade war, possibly into a military war. The existing sanctions on Iran could also cause domestic problems if the country cannot find alternatives.
Given that EU sanctions against Syria have not been used to interrupt Iranian supply to Syria since their introduction in 2011 and that Britain is supposed to leave the EU this year, it seems more likely that the UK acted on the behest of the US. The Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ is regarded as essential to the UK’s defence against global conflict and the UK will not want to endanger that as tensions are rising worldwide.
If the UK did seize the tanker at America’s request, could this suggest that the US is willing to encourage its allies to act more on US interests? Iran finding alternative markets would alleviate or potentially negate the effects of American sanctions and thus question America’s superpower status.
America has increased its sanctions since its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, threatening countries buying Iranian oil with sanctions in April 2019. This has seen Iran’s crude oil exports drop from 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in April 2018 to 300,000 bpd in late June 2019. The economic warfare almost become military when Iran shot down an American military drone, claiming that it violated Iranian airspace. However, the US claims it was over international waters. President Trump ordered retaliatory airstrikes before cancelling the attacks.
Anglo-Iranian relations have also taken a hit in recent years. The imprisonment of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in 2016 for spying soured relations between the two countries.
The UK’s involvement could signal an expansion of the tensions between Iran and the US to their respective allies and the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal. Grace One’s seizure and Iran’s response to it suggests that it is not willing to back down and that further conflict between Iran and the West could be near.