Iran in tanker row with UK as pressure on Europe fails to produce results

“Should Iran continue to violate the agreement, it will become more difficult for the European parties of the agreement to support Tehran.” - Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Troubled waters. Oil tanker British Heritage sails in the Bosporus on its way to the Black Sea in Istanbul, last March. (Reuters)
Troubled waters. Oil tanker British Heritage sails in the Bosporus on its way to the Black Sea in Istanbul, last March. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Tensions between Iran and Britain are rising as Tehran’s efforts to pressure European countries into providing economic compensation to offset damage done by US sanctions are failing to produce results.

The British Navy said it prevented three Iranian paramilitary vessels from impeding the passage of a British commercial ship in the Strait of Hormuz early July 11, a day after Iranian President Hassan Rohani warned of repercussions for the seizure of one of Iran’s supertankers by British Royal Marines. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said the United States and Britain would “regret” the July 4 seizure of the Iranian vessel off Gibraltar.

Even before the tanker row with London erupted, Iran caused irritation in Europe by breaking rules of its nuclear agreement with world powers. Tehran recently began breaching uranium enrichment limits in response to the US administration’s withdrawal from the agreement last year and its imposition of sweeping sanctions.

US President Donald Trump said sanctions were to be increased “substantially.” He did not provide details.

Analysts say Iran’s violations of limits set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear agreement is formally known, are intended to get the Europeans to do more against the US punishment.

The strategy is leaving Europe in an increasingly difficult situation.

Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think-tank in Brussels, said via e-mail that Tehran had “good reason” to be frustrated. “Iran signed the JCPOA in good faith and complied with it,” she wrote.

“The nuclear deal is currently on life support,” Paul added. Iran’s violation of some rules of the deal was “not helpful to the other signatories of the JCPOA.”

“Should Iran continue to violate the agreement, it will become more difficult for the European parties of the agreement to support Tehran.” she said. “In the worst-case scenario this could lead to the reimposition of all sanctions, including EU and UN sanctions, and an increased confrontation between Iran and the international community.”

The July 11 reported tanker incident, denied by the IRGC, could provide a boost for a US plan to forge an international military alliance to keep trade routes open. Under the plan, the United States would provide command ships while navy vessels from partner countries would accompany ships in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb Strait at the entry to the Red Sea.

Since the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, the remaining parties to the deal — Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and the European Union — have been unable to meet Tehran’s demands for economic assistance to offset the sanctions.

“Iran wishes to put pressure on the EU to activate its transaction channel, the so-called Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) that will allow companies to continue trading with Iran to a limited amount despite US sanctions,” Farhang Jahanpour, an Iranian academic and member of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, said by e-mail.

“That project has been talked about for over a year and still it has not been set up. Therefore, Iran wishes to pressurise Britain, France and Germany to get on with it.”

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht-Ravanchi told the BBC that European countries had failed to keep their pledges.

“They promised us to do exactly what they were supposed to do: to compensate what we have lost as a result of the US withdrawal” from the JCPOA, Takht-Ravanchi said. “It is not acceptable to us to see that the Europeans are not honouring their commitments.”

Breaching JCPOA limits has not had the effect that Iran has hoped for. In a statement, Germany, France and Britain said their continued support for the accord “relies on Iran implementing its commitments.” They added the “issues at hand should be addressed by participants to the JCPOA.”

Iran’s violations of the JCPOA have also complicated a French effort to mediate between Iran and the United States. French President Emmanuel Macron sent his top diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, to Tehran. There were no tangible results of the visit.

At Washington’s request, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog had a special meeting July 10. US delegate Jackie Wolcott told the gathering that Iran was engaged in “nuclear extortion.” Her Iranian counterpart, Kazem Gharib Abadi, called it a “sad irony” that the meeting was convened at Washington’s request and claimed the standoff was a result of the United States’ “outlaw behaviour.”

A source at the French presidency told Agence France-Presse that “we are in a very critical phase. The Iranians are taking measures that are in violation (of the agreement) but (they) are very calibrated.”

Paul said Europe should keep looking for a solution despite problems between the European Union and Russia. Brussels and Moscow are at odds over the conflict in Ukraine and other issues.

“The Russians and Chinese, which both have some influence over Iran, are the best options for brokering a way out of this dangerous situation,” Paul said.

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