Britain Should Step Back on Iran

The UK triggered the latest Gulf escalation, and can act to defuse it

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Regardless whether the British confirm it or the Iranians deny it, the American claim that Iranian gunboats attempted to capture a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz is a portent of things to come in the Gulf.

The story was broken in the US, where it was announced that five Iranian naval vessels tried to intercept the tanker British Heritageand force it into Iranian waters, but were chased off by a Royal Navy frigate. The UK later issued a slightly different account of the incident, while Iran denied that any confrontation had taken place at all.

The Iranian denial should not be dismissed, and the way British spokespeople have been trying to talk up the incident is inappropriate. If the Iranian boats had intended to inflict any damage on the tanker, they would have done. What they sought to do was send a clear message that last month’s seizure by British forces of the Iranian-chartered tanker Grace 1in the Strait of Gibraltar would not go unanswered.

This was underlined by President Hasan Rohani when he said on Wednesday that it was Britain that had initiated instability in the region and that it would come to understand the consequences, and stressed the need for all international waterways to be secure.

The UK’s detention of the Grace1 at Washington’s behest in line with US sanctions on Iran was illegal. These sanctions have no validity in international law and cannot be enforced on third countries. Even the justification that the move was aimed at applying EU sanctions against Syria – as the tanker was suspected to be heading for the port of Banyas – is legally dubious, as these sanctions, also, were never endorsed by the UN and other countries cannot be forced to apply them. In any case, what is the problem with allowing desperately needed fuel to reach Syria and relieve the suffering of its people who face an acute energy shortage? Where are the UN resolutions prohibiting that?

Britain and the United States are entitled to demand freedom of international navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. But that should also apply to the Strait of Gibraltar. This selective application of international law is unjustified and unacceptable. It is an act of harassment which, given the current incendiary climate in the Gulf and Middle East, could end up triggering a world war.

The UK government should not have seized the Iranian tanker by force at the request of the US. At worst, it should have left the job to the US navy, whose warships crowd the Mediterranean. By acting as it did, it gave the impression of having adopted wholesale the US position on Iran, in contrast to other European signatories of the JCPOA nuclear deal like France and Germany. They remain firmly opposed to Trump’s decision last year to renege on the deal. It is that move which caused the current tension, and will be to blame for the destructive consequences if US sanctions continue being applied.

There is no way of telling how and when this crisis might end, but it can be confidently predicted that Iran will not capitulate to the embargo and will not allow itself to be starved and suffocated into submission. Nor should it. The US-enforced economic blockade is illegal, illegitimate and immoral. It embodies the worst kind of neo-imperial arrogance and bullying, and is being imposed principally due to Israeli pressure.

The step that needs to be taken to defuse the tension must be made by the British government. It should release the Iranian tanker immediately and unconditionally. Otherwise, we should all await the worst in a region that needs only a matchstick to ignite and detonate it.

The outgoing British ambassador in Washington was right when he described the Trump administration as ‘inept’ and ‘dysfunctional’. But the government of Theresa May has shown itself to be even more inept by supporting and siding with Trump’s ineptitude with regard to Iran, seemingly heedless of the potentially disastrous consequences for all.

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