GP Insights

GP Insights # 108, 27 July 2019

In the Gulf, new tensions between Iran and the UK
Lakshmi V Menon

What happened?
Iran’s elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps detained two oil tankers – one registered in the UK (Stena Impero) and the other in Liberia - in the Strait of Hormuz on 20 July 2019. The seizure was in response to the UK impounding an Iranian tanker. According to Tehran the ‘Stena Impero’ collided with a fishing boat while sailing towards Saudi port and then suddenly changed course breaching international maritime laws. Will Tehran and London truce or will the situation spiral out of control?

What is the background?

In a recent episode of the US-Iran standoff, Iran shot down an unmanned US “spy-drone”. Trump retaliated by launching an airstrike on Iran but cancelled at the last minute. In early July, Tehran announced its decision to breach the nuclear deal. On July 4, the United Kingdom seized the Iranian oil tanker ‘Grace 1’ just off the coast of Gibraltar, accusing the tanker of selling oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Tehran warned of retaliation. On July 11, Iran attempted to seize a UK tanker in vain; only to succeed a few days later.

What does it mean?
Trump-exit from JCPOA and the re-imposition of crippling sanctions put the deal on life-support making the remaining signatories scuttle for a working relationship with Tehran. However, Iranian decision to exceed the 3.68% Uranium enrichment levels and heavy-water stockpiles – a significant breach of the nuke deal, has put the signatories in a tricky position. The UK-Iran conflict is a small piece in the broader Iran-US impasse. 

Iran has carried out the threat of retaliation rising tensions between Iran and the West another notch. The international naval coalition for protection of ships sailing in the Gulf, proposed by Britain saw strong opposition from Tehran. Although Iran’s Rouhani had hinted a possible tanker swap-deal, nothing has materialized. The tensions are only spiralling and may end in another Gulf war if not curbed.

Meanwhile, the UK now provides military escort to their ships sailing in the Gulf; the US plans to ensure “free passage” of ships in Iranian waters; Tehran claims to have arrested 17 CIA officers spying on Iran’s nuclear and military establishments; India has stated that Iran has released nine Indian crew members; and the existing signatories - France, Germany, the EU, China, Russia and the UK will meet in Vienna, on July 28, to save the deal

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