Detention of British tanker weakens Iran’s position
Britain has not just a new prime minister in Boris Johnson but a new foreign minister, Dominic Raab, and a new defence minister, Ben Wallace. This looks more like a new government than a cabinet reshuffle and comes as London faces Iran’s detention of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero.
While Johnson’s focus is on withdrawal from the European Union, he must also decide whether to continue British efforts to maintain the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
US President Donald Trump clearly sees Johnson as a closer ally than former British Prime Minister Theresa May. Trump might even hope Johnson accepts a fait accompli in Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA last year and imposition of stringent sanctions.
Iran’s frustration over falling oil exports — down from 2.6 million barrels per day (bpd) to 380,000-500,000 bpd because of US sanctions — underlies the tensions centred on shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz. The crisis goes back to May with attacks, denied by Iran, on four tankers, two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati.
Tension ratcheted up July 4 when British Royal Marines, ostensibly acting on behalf of Gibraltar and certainly with US liaison, detained the Grace I, an Iranian supertanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil, which the United Kingdom said was heading for Syria.
Mohsen Rezaei, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the “tanker wars” of the 1980s, openly advocated for retaliation. This came July 19 when IRGC forces slid down ropes from a helicopter to seize the Stena Impero, which Tehran claimed was in Iranian waters.
This is a pond where any stone causes large ripples. Shipping and insurance companies are pushing up fees and premiums, with some proposing tanker convoys to reduce the need for military escorts. Nearly 17 million barrels a day of crude pass through the strait, as well as 4 million bpd of condensates and petroleum products — all on 30-35 supertankers. Four-fifths of the cargoes go to Asia.
“I believe the decision [to impound the Stena Impero] was made at the highest level by [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the National Security Council on the advice of the IRGC,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. “[President Hassan] Rohani’s government had to go along, considering Iran’s dire economic circumstances and the inability or passivity of the Europeans to undertake substantial measures to circumvent the US sanctions.”
This left the United Kingdom struggling to balance various objectives, with previous Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt working for a European maritime protection mission independent of the substantial US naval presence. In this, he had to consider US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that Britain defend its own ships and London’s desire to assert, along with Germany and France, the Europeans’ distinct approach over Iran.
“Britain is trying to protect maritime trade while upholding what remains of the JCPOA,” said Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Iran. “A key feature of the JCPOA, which is the separation of the nuclear programme from other matters, has not yet been lost.”
Dalton said there could be a diplomatic way forward. “Negotiations should be possible, both over the tankers and wider maritime protection,” he said. “Following that, a broader diplomatic effort involving the US is needed for de-escalation and, after that, regional security talks should begin, recognising all interests. Modest agreed steps may be possible, despite prevailing mistrust, especially if the UAE withdrawal from Yemen is a prelude to a more serious peace effort there.”
Dalton also recalled that the central weakness of Europe-Iran talks over the nuclear programme in 2003-05, in which he participated and which laid the groundwork for the JCPOA, was the lack of US participation. Dalton conceded that agreement or direct engagement between Tehran and Washington was “very unlikely at the moment.”
Boroujerdi argues that Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero weakened its position. “It’s quite possible that the tanker crisis will end with a face-saving exchange of ships but Iran’s hopes of creating a serious wedge between US and Europe have failed,” he said. “From now on, Iran will face a much more sceptical Europe when it comes to claiming to be a victim.”
The meeting in Vienna of remaining JCPOA signatories — the Europeans, Russia, China and Iran — comes as Iran’s early-September deadline looms for further expanding its nuclear programme beyond JCPOA limits. This would follow breaching the 300-kilogram cap on enriched uranium at the end of June and enriching above 3.67% in July.
“The central rationale of the JCPOA has now been lost,” said Boroujerdi. “The damage caused by Trump’s abandonment of the agreement is not going to be easily reversible, even if, in 17 months, a Democrat is sitting in the White House.