Tensions Increasing Again In The Persian Gulf

Tensions are increasing in the Persian Gulf thanks to a collection of actions by Iran, the United States, and United Kingdom.

After several weeks of seemingly calming down, tensions in the Persian Gulf appear to be on the rise again and it’s unclear where thinks might be headed. The current crisis appears to have started at the beginning of the month when British authorities in Gibraltar seized an Iranian tanker that was believed to be headed to Syria that was believed to be carrying Iranian oil. This delivery would have been in violation of sanctions imposed by the European Union against Syria, although the Iranians have alleged that the seizure was done at the behest of the United States. Just yesterday, a court in Gibraltar ruled that the tanker could continue to be held for at least another month. In response to the seizure at the beginning of the month, Iran reportedly has been harassing British shipping in the Persian Gulf and, more importantly, the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow passage between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula that leads to the Gulf of Oman and, beyond it, to the Indian Ocean.

Tensions increased earlier this week when the United States brought down an Iranian drone that was allegedly getting dangerously close to USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship currently part of the task force patrolling the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Initially, it was reported that the Boxer had shot the drone down, but it now appears that it had been brought down by other means, potentially via electronic jamming that interfered with the signals between the drone and its controllers. Whatever the circumstances, though, the incident brought to mind the incident near the end of June when Iran claimed to have shot down an American reconnaissance drone, although there have been some reports that the drone may have actually gone down due to problems of its own. The U/S, Navy, though, denied that the incident involving the Boxer was retaliation for the earlier incident, saying instead that the crew of the Boxer had acted in self-defense due to the fact that the drone had gotten too close to the ship and its escorts and that the Iranians had ignored repeated warnings to withdraw.

 In response to that and to recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the United States has blamed on Iranian forces, President Trump first ordered and then canceled a retaliatory strike on Iranian forces. Then, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran in response to the heightening of tensions in the Persian Gulf. As noted at that point, though, those sanctions were unlikely to work and the Trump Administration has very few options in the regions.

With those incidents still unresolved, tensions were upped yet again on Friday when Iran reportedly seized a British-flagged tanker:

LONDON — Iran seized at least one British oil tanker in a vital Persian Gulf waterway on Friday, a sharp escalation of tensions with the West that revived fears of a military clash, even as voices on both sides appeared to be seeking room for negotiations.

The impoundment of the tanker by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps naval patrols came a day after the United States said it had downed an Iranian drone menacing an American warship in the region.

But Iran’s standoff with Britain, in particular, carries its own complications. Britain occupies a pivotal place in a bloc of European states that have tried to broker some resolution to a broader conflict between Tehran and Washington over the fate of a 2015 deal with the world powers designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain convened an emergency meeting of advisers late Friday night to respond.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said in a statement issued before the meeting that he was “extremely concerned” and called the seizure “unacceptable.”

At the time Mr. Hunt spoke, Iran had at least briefly detained a second British-owned ship, and Mr. Hunt said the meeting would address “what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels.” He noted that no British citizen had been among the crews.

“We’re not looking at military options; we’re looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation,” Mr. Hunt said later. “But we are very clear that it must be resolved.”

The United States Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. operations in the Middle East, said in a statement that “patrol aircraft in international airspace” were monitoring the Strait of Hormuz and the Navy was in contact with American ships in the area “to ensure their safety.”

The display of force by the Revolutionary Guards was publicly welcomed by hard-line Iranian officials. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose hostility toward Britain and the United States is well known, appeared to revel in the achievement of capturing the British vessel.

“The country’s proud defense capabilities are a result of the pressures and cutting ties with foreigners” during the era of Iran’s long war with Iraq in the 1980s, the ayatollah said in a post on social media.

He also appeared to encourage Iranians to persevere through the crippling economic sanctions that were imposed by the United States in May and set off the current escalation.

“The movement now to rely on only ourselves will yield important results including economically,” the ayatollah said.

Tensions between Britain and Iran spiked earlier this month when the British military impounded an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar on suspicion of having violated a European Union embargo on the sale of oil to Syria. Iran called the seizure “piracy,” accused Britain of acting on a pretext at the behest of Washington and threatened to capture a British ship in retaliation.

Iranian vessels first tried to stop a British tanker in the Persian Gulf region a few days later, on July 11. After a short standoff, an accompanying British warship drove them away.

But late Friday afternoon, Iranian news agencies reported that Revolutionary Guard seamen had indeed seized at least one British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow Gulf waterway that is a critical conduit for maritime oil traffic.

The news agencies quoted the Guards as saying the tanker had “violated three international naval regulations,” including turning off a GPS locator, breaking the traffic pattern in the Strait of Hormuz and polluting the water by dumping crude oil residue.

“We asked the armed forces to guide this tanker to Bandar Abbas port so we can investigate further,” Allah Morad Anifipour, the head of Iran’s shipping and port organization, said, according to official Iranian accounts.

Early Saturday, the semiofficial Iranian news agency Fars reported that the tanker had been brought to Bandar Abbas, and that its 23 crew members would remain on board until an investigation was finished, according to Reuters. Fars quoted an official as saying that the tanker had been in an accident with a fishing boat before it was seized.

At least for the time being, authorities in the region are downplaying the incident, characterizing it as a response to the British seizure at Gibraltar earlier this month:

At least one senior American military official on Friday appeared to play down the latest escalation by Iran, calling it a foreseeable response to the British seizure of the Iranian tanker near Gibraltar.

f”They look for things that are proportional in nature,” Lt. Gen Robert P. Ashley Jr., the top military intelligence officer, said in a discussion with journalists at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “They aren’t looking to go to war but at the same time they are looking to project strength,” he said.

All of this is happening, of course, in the context of an increasingly tense relationship between Iran and the west that have been unfolding over the past year. It was just over a year ago that the President announced that the United States was pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear weapons deal reached between Iran and a group of seven nations that include the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Despite that move, Iran, which by all accounts had been abiding by the terms of the agreement, continued to abide by the agreement. One of the reasons for that has been the fact that none of the parties to the agreement joined the United States in withdrawing from the agreement, including close American allies such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany as well as Russia and China.

As time has gone on, though, the United States has upped the pressure on the Islamic Republic by beginning to reimpose the sanctions that had been lifted as part of the deal. This has included measures that have discouraged many major multi-national corporations from doing business in or with Iran. Shortly after that, the U.S. took measures to cut off the Islamic Republic’s ability to access the revenues generated by oil exports that form a substantial part of its economy. By all accounts, these reimposed sanctions have had a serious impact on the Iranian economy in general and on the value of its currency specifically. They have also led to shortages of medicine in the country despite American promises that humanitarian and other emergency aid would not be impacted by sanctions. “

In addition to this, the Administration has taken steps that have arguably led to an increased possibility of a military clash in the Persian Gulf that could spiral out of control. In April, for example, the President officially designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization notwithstanding warnings from advisers that doing so could lead to increased tensions in the area and reprisals against Americans by Iranian agents of proxies such as Hezbollah or other terrorist groups in the Middle East. Last month, amid vague reports of a rising Iranian threat that the Administration declined to set forth in detail, the Administration announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group would be headed to the region, and also sent 1,500 troops to the region

In response, the Iranians have increasing been leaning on the other signatories to the JCPOA to provide some relief from the American sanctions. Additionally, the Islamic Republic has taken some steps that include technical violations of the JCPOA, including passing key limitations on uranium enrichment levels and the amount of enriched uranium it could stockpile. In taking these actions, though, Iran stopped short of fully repudiating the JCPOA and the steps it has taken are ones that could be easily reversed. It is also apparent that these steps are meant to prod the other signatories to the JCPOA to act much as they did earlier this year Iran technically surpassed the JCOPOA limits regarding heavy water only to pull back from the brink after getting some concessions from European JCPOA signatories.

It’s unclear where things go from here, and much will depend on how the Iranians and the British resolve the issues dealing with their respective tankers. The ideal result, obviously, would involve some sort of diplomatic solution that covers both the Iranian tanker being held at Gibraltar and the British tanker being held and Bander Abbas. With leadership in the United Kingdom still up in the air until at least the middle of next week, though, it could prove difficult for any discussions to take place. This is especially true given the fact that the current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is opposing Boris Johnson for leadership of the Conservative Party, a contest that will ultimately determine who the next Prime Minister will be, and it seems unlikely that Johnson will keep Hunt in place if he wins the election as seems likely at this point. It also depends on whether or not there are further incidents in the Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz. If there are, that could complicate matters considerably.

As they say, stay tuned.

Map via CNN

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Slugger says:

    “War is the health of the state.” Conflict and near conflict result in willing surrender of power by citizens and increased authority of their rulers. How will Brexit work? Never mind, we have to fight Iran. How will we modernize our country in the face of a regressive religious ideology? Never mind, we have to fight the West. How about our budget? Never mind, we have to fight Iran. No Iranian has ever hurt me, and peace and quiet in shipping petroleum is in my best interests. How about you? However, peace, quiet, and a reasonable regard for our personal best interests will not get anyone to be in a crowd chanting slogans while our leaders strut on a stage.

  2. Gustopher says:

    The current crisis appears to have started at the beginning of the month when British authorities in Gibraltar seized an Iranian tanker that was believed to be headed to Syria that was believed to be carrying Iranian oil. This delivery would have been in violation of sanctions imposed by the European Union against Syria, although the Iranians have alleged that the seizure was done at the behest of the United States.

    That seems less like sanctions, and more like a military blockade.

    What legal basis does Britain have to seize a foreign tanker going to a different foreign country? Does Britain use Gibraltar to regularly control all traffic going in or out of the Mediterranean?

  3. Ken_L says:

    America and apparently some of its allies have gone sanctions-mad. Last time I looked, the US had economic sanctions on more than 20 countries. The reflexive response to any perceived offence is to slap some sanctions on, without any apparent thought to whether they will achieve anything or how they might ultimately be lifted.

    There is no point the EU having sanctions on oil shipments to Syria. They’re not at war with Syria. They’re not supporting insurgents in the civil war, which is effectively over. Keeping them in place is simply the result of a refusal to admit they were an error of judgement in the first place. Taking over an Iranian ship was a straightforward act of piracy; an unbelievably irresponsible act in the current climate.

    From my perspective, America and some of its allies are doing everything they can to damage Iran and provoke it into hostilities, while yelling “Aggression!” every time Iran pushes back. It’s a very old playbook but it’s stunning to see it being done by the Trump Administration, with Congress doing nothing but tut-tutting occasionally on the sidelines before getting back to its obsession with Trump’s media stunts.

  4. JohnSF says:

    Legal basis, as I understand it, is that it was a vessel carrying embargoed goods transiting EU waters in general, and UK waters in particular (i.e. Gibraltar), en route to an EU embargoed state i.e. Syria.