The alert fell in the early evening Friday. A British flag tanker, the Stena Impero, was seized by the Iranian authorities. On its website, the Swedish company Stena Bulk, owner of the boat, confirms that at around 4 p.m. Friday, the 23-person crew were surrounded by boats and a helicopter from Iranian forces, forcing them to take the leadership of Iran. At that time, the tanker was in the Strait of Hormuz, more precisely in the waters of Oman. Iran is therefore not supposed to interfere with the passage of the ship through this strait which sees one fifth of the world’s oil circulating in its waters. Tehran claims, however, that the ship violated international maritime laws.
Shortly after, we learn that a second tanker belonging to a British company was seized before being released a few hours later. The British government has put itself on alert and calls around 11 p.m. a Cobra meeting, the emergency cell in the event of a crisis. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemns this act “unacceptable” and says the government is doing everything possible to ensure that the incident is resolved quickly and calmly.
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The origin of this diplomatic crisis dates back to July 4. That day, the authorities of Gibraltar, a British territory in the south of Spain, board a ship suspected of delivering oil to Syria, in violation of European sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Iran denies and speaks of an act of piracy. The crew members of the boat were arrested and then released, but Tehran did not like it.
New episode on July 10. Iran tries to block passage of British oil tanker British Heritage in the Strait of Hormuz. Stationed in the area at the time, the British Navy frigate the HMS Montrose comes to the aid of the tanker and escorts him along the strait. This same frigate had verbally warned the Iranian authorities on Friday to let the Stena Impero. But this time, Iran decided to go all the way and seized the ship. The same day Gibraltar announced that it would keep the Iranian tanker for an additional thirty days.
The Stena Impero is still in the hands of the Iranian authorities, anchored at the port of Bandar Abbas. Sunday, the Foreign Office, contacted by Release, asserted that the government continued to do its utmost to ensure that the tanker was released quickly. According to the Foreign Office, consultations took place Sunday afternoon between London and its allies, including France and Germany who blasted Iran. For his part, Jeremy Hunt had strongly condemned this act which “Violates international navigation law”. On Friday night he claimed the UK wanted to respond “In a reasonable but robust way” and that if no military option was considered for the moment, there would be “Serious consequences if the crisis is not resolved quickly”.
London is in a difficult position. On the one hand, the United Kingdom is trying to save the deal with Iran on nuclear power concluded in 2015, from which Trump’s United States withdrew before reimposing sanctions. On the other hand, London intends to show that it remains firm against Tehran at the very moment when tensions are mounting between Washington and the Islamic Republic.
But in addition to diplomatic tensions, the United Kingdom is going through a period of uncertainties linked to the local political situation. Theresa May, who has just had her last weekend as Prime Minister, did not attend the emergency meetings on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, but “Stay informed” of the situation according to a Downing Street source.
By Tuesday, the name of the next Prime Minister will be revealed, probably Boris Johnson, given the big favorite in the polls. This crisis therefore comes at a very delicate moment in British politics, already very complicated since the Brexit vote in 2016. How to manage such a standoff when a change of government is about to take place? Downing Street recalls that Theresa May remains Prime Minister until Wednesday and that the vision of her successor on the Iranian file will not be really known until then.
In this climate of uncertainty, one fact deserves to be noted. According to the newspaper The Observer, Sunday edition of the daily The Guardian, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson’s rival as head of government, briefed his opponent on the development of tensions with Tehran. If Boris Johnson is appointed Prime Minister on Tuesday as expected, he is likely to keep Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary.
Sign of a volatile situation in the United Kingdom, the military entered the dance this weekend. “This crisis developed as the eyes of theestablishment were focused only on the election of the next Prime Minister, Former First Admiral Alan West said in an interview on SkyNews. This crisis cannot be ignored in favor of Brexit. ” The criticism is recurrent: the UK’s exit from the European Union has taken over and the rest of British affairs are being ignored.
Alan West’s comments were condemned Sunday by Tobias Ellwood, Secretary of State for Defense. Who however allowed himself a small picnic: “The Royal Navy is too small and it is impossible to escort every passing boat.” Ellwood believes the government should invest more money in defense. A request that echoes that of Jeremy Hunt in May, who asked that the budget of the armies be increased. It has fallen in recent years and currently only represents 2% of GDP against 4% for the United States.
The United Kingdom appears alone and weakened. With a Prime Minister on the departure and little invested in the Iranian file as well as an absence of concerted reaction on the part of the European allies, the next tenant of Downing Street will have to take decisions quickly to reaffirm a leadership in crisis in London as in the Strait of Hormuz.