TEHRAN (Dispatches) — A powerful council in Iran said Saturday the country’s seizure of a British oil tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz was in response to Britain’s detention of an Iranian supertanker two weeks earlier.
Spokesman of Iran’s Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, said "the rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law” and that Iran’s moves to "confront the illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers is an instance of this rule and is based on international rights.”
The British-flagged Stena Impero was seized by Iran on Friday evening with a crew of 23 crew aboard.
Two weeks earlier, Britain’s Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker carrying more than 2 million barrels of Iranian crude by Gibraltar, off the southern coast of Spain. Officials there initially said the July 4 seizure happened on orders from the U.S.
Britain has said it would release the vessel if Iran could prove it was not breaching European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria. However, on Friday, a court in Gibraltar extended by 30 days the detention of the Panama-flagged Grace.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif characterized the seizure of Iran’s tanker as "piracy.” In comments on Twitter, he wrote that the UK must cease being an accessory to the "economic terrorism” of the U.S. — a reference to sweeping American sanctions on Iran.
In London, Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of Britain’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said military action to free the British tanker would be "extremely unwise,” especially because the vessel was apparently taken to a well-protected port.
Current tensions have been escalating since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed economic sanctions on Iran, including its oil exports.
In May, the U.S. announced it was dispatching an aircraft carrier and additional troops to the Middle East, citing unspecified threats posed by Iran.
In June, Iran shot down an American drone in the same waterway for violating the Iranian airspace.
Stena Bulk, the owner of the seized British tanker, said the vessel’s crew members are of Indian, Filipino, Russian and Latvian nationalities. Iranian officials say the crew remain on the tanker.
The IRNA news agency said Iran seized the British-flagged vessel after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat.
British Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt, nevertheless, called the incident a "hostile act”. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had expressed extreme disappointment by phone to his Iranian counterpart, Muhammad Javad Zarif. Britain also summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires in London.
Zarif told Hunt that the ship must go through a legal process before it could be released, Iran’s INSA news agency reported.
Earlier he said London’s reaction would be "considered but robust”, and it would ensure the safety of its shipping.
On Friday, Hunt said the solution would be found via diplomacy and London was "not looking at military options.” Britain’s government said it had advised British shipping to stay out of the Hormuz area for an interim period.
Zarif later defended the seizure, saying the move aimed to "uphold international maritime rules."
In a tweet, Zarif emphasized that "it is Iran that guarantees the security of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.”
"Unlike the piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar, our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold int'l maritime rules,” he said.
A spokesman for Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Brigadier-General Ramezan Sharif, said Tehran had seized the ship in the Strait of Hormuz despite the "resistance and interference” of a British warship which had been escorting it.
Iran’s Fars news agency said the Guards had taken control of the Stena Impero on Friday after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.
The vessel, carrying no cargo, was taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. It would remain there with its 23 crew — 18 of them Indians — while the accident was investigated, Iranian news agencies quoted the head of Ports and Maritime Organization in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, as saying.
Afifpour said the crew members of the ship may be interviewed on technical matters.
"The investigation into the cause of the accident has been started today," he said. "All its 23 crew members will remain on the ship until the probe is over."
"If necessary, and at the request of judicial authorities, the crew may be summoned for technical and specialist interviews," Afifpoor added.
The strait, between Iran and the Arabian peninsula, is the sole outlet for exports of the vast majority of Middle Eastern oil, and the seizure sent oil prices sharply higher.
Since British Royal Marines abseiled from a helicopter off Gibraltar to seize the Grace 1 Iranian tanker on July 4, a number of Iranian officials had warned to retaliate. After maintaining silence for more than a week, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei called the British action "piracy”.
A senior politician and IRGC commander, General Mohsen Rezai, said on Twitter that Iran was not looking for war, "but we are not going to come up short in reciprocating”.