Evolving tense situation in the Gulf was raised a notch higher on Friday with the seizure of a British-flagged ship by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, in waters that the British claimed were international, but Iran said was its territorial waters.
According to official Iranian news agency, the Swedish-owned tanker Stena Impero was towed away for switching off its automatic satellite tracking device and drifting into Iranian waters. The charge was denied by the British, who claimed that the vessel was sailing in international waters under its own power when it was taken over by the Iranian forces.
Also on Friday, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia announced that the Kingdom would approve the deployment of US forces on its soil, so as to “jointly help maintain security and stability in the region, as well as ensure international peace”.
Seizure of the British vessel, which was subsequently released on Saturday, and increasing presence of US forces in the region, highlights the tenor of tensions that currently exist in what is increasingly becoming a very hot and hostile Persian Gulf. Dangers of these tensions escalating into a full-blown confrontation and conflagration between Iran and the US remains ominously possible, unless saner and cooler sense prevails on both sides.
In an interview last week with CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif clearly stated that his country would never start a war, but that it was prepared to defend itself against any aggression. In the interview, conducted with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the Iranian foreign minister dwelled at length on current tensions between Iran and the United States, the US sanctions on his country, and the evolving situation in the Persian Gulf.
Asked if the current tensions in the Arabian Gulf could lead to a war with the United States, Mr. Zarif said, “You cannot simply disregard the possibility of a disaster. But we all need to work in order to avoid war.”
He also pointed out that the US was already waging an economic war on Iran through sanctions and other means. The US sanctions on Iran are “deliberately targeting innocent civilians” and amount to economic terrorism. Economic war is nothing to be proud of because in a military confrontation civilians may become collateral damage, but in an economic war civilians are the primary targets, said the Iranian foreign minister.
During his visit last week to the United Nations in New York, Mr. Zarif had also told a UN forum that the US is “deliberately targeting innocent civilians to achieve illegitimate political objectives” with the severe sanctions.The “unlawful, extraterritorial” sanctions “represent the greatest threat to the achievement of sustainable development goals of Iran and many of our neighbours,” he added.
On the Panamanian flagged tanker that appears to have been escorted to a port in Iran by the Iranian navy on Wednesday, the Iranian minister said: “I haven’t had any briefing about that, but I’ve heard in the news is that it required assistance and it’s being assisted. But I haven’t seen any private briefings about that.
It will be recalled that last Wednesday, media reports said that a UAE-owned fueling tanker, Riah, flying the Panamanian flag, had been towed away to an undisclosed port by the Iranian navy after it was found within the territorial waters of Iran. The Iranian navy claimed that the tanker had requested help after it had become disabled and the navy had only responded by towing it away for repairs.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the tanker seized on Wednesday had been surrounded by four vessels and a helicopter and was heading into Iranian waters. There were no reported injuries among the 23 crew members, who are Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino. A second British-owned Liberian-flagged tanker, the MV Mesdar, was also boarded by armed Iranian guards but was released.
He added that the seizures were “completely unacceptable” and “freedom of navigation must be maintained. He warned that if the situation was not resolved quickly there would be serious consequences. But he emphasized, “We are not looking at military options. We are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve this situation but we are very clear that it must be resolved.”
Tensions between the UK and Iran flared up earlier this month when Royal Marines helped seize an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar which was suspected of carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
In the interview, when CNN alleged that the Iranian government was trying to raise tensions in the Arabian Gulf by interdicting tankers, and in a sense, signaling that it could in various ways block the flow of oil from the Straits of Hormuz, Mr. Zarif replied: “ Well you see we are in the Persian Gulf. We have fifteen hundred miles of coastline with the Arabian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz are our lifeline and their security is of paramount importance for Iran. But throughout history Iran has provided security in these waters. The United States is intervening in order to make these waters insecure for Iran. You cannot make these waters insecure for one country and secure it for others.
Asked whether an escalation in these waters would result in a military incident, the foreign minister pointed out that the Straits of Hormuz was such a small body of water and if you have so many foreign vessels accidents could happen. “You remember 1988, when a US warship in these waters shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing two hundred and ninety passengers. So, accidents, even catastrophes can happen under these circumstances.”
On whether the Iranian government was raising military tension by deliberately provoking the United States by downing its drone and seizing tankers, Mr. Zarif said “Last I heard the people who seized tankers were the Brits in Gibraltar who seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil against all principles of international law. We only defend our territory. The United States drone entered Iranian territory entered Iranian airspace. It was shot down because even without entering Iranian airspace it could spy over our entire territory while entering our airspace it not only threatened our territorial integrity but it was threatening our national security. We will not tolerate foreigners coming 6,000 miles from their shores to our shores and threatening our national sovereignty and stability.
Tensions between Iran and the US sharply escalated after US President Donald Trump came to power and decided to unilaterally withdraw from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with Western countries including the US. The deal between Tehran and world powers had successfully prevented Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions that many feared could lead to the development of an atomic bomb. But President Trump called the nuclear deal “one-sided” and reimposed punishing sanctions that have resulted in a sharp fall in Iranian oil exports and sent the country’s economy into a tailspin.
On the chances of a direct war with the United States the Iranian minister said: “I can tell you that we will never start a war. We’ve never started a war. We will never start a war, but we will defend ourselves and anybody who starts a war with Iran will not be the one who ends it.”
Interview by Fareed Zakaria of CNN
Published by special arrangement with CNN