A face-off has developed between Iran and the US after the UK released an Iranian oil-tanker that had been caught up in a standoff between the UK, the US and Iran after more than 40 days in detention this week. Britain had rejected Washington’s request to detain the tanker further.
The development puts the US and Iran in a face-off that is threatening further escalation in the Middle East, especially with a senior Iranian official now declaring that the earlier nuclear deal with the West was “a mistake” and the US Trump administration aggressively pursuing economic sanctions as a primary foreign policy tool against Tehran.
The US strategy has caused significant tensions with Europe, where experts say sanctions fatigue may be setting in. The decision by the British territory of Gibraltar to release the Iranian tanker could be a case in point.
The Iranian tanker sailed through the Mediterranean towards Greece on Monday, and Tehran said that any US move to seize the vessel again would have “heavy consequences”. Asked whether the US might renew its seizure request after the tanker sailed from Gibraltar, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “such an action… would endanger shipping safety in open seas. We have issued a warning through official channels, especially the Swiss embassy.”
Switzerland represents US interests in Iran.
The release of the Iranian ship, formerly known as the Grace 1 but renamed by Iran the Adrian Darya 1, came after the supreme court in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, decided there was no reason to keep the ship in port.
The decision came after Gibraltar’s government said it had received written assurances from Iran that the ship would not be heading for countries “subject to European Union sanctions”.
Gibraltar’s government also rebuffed a US request to extend the detention of the Iranian oil-tanker, saying it could not comply with the US request because of European law. “The Central Authority’s inability to seek the orders requested is a result of the operation of European Union law and the differences in the sanctions regimes applicable to Iran in the EU and the US,” it said in a statement.
“The EU sanctions regime against Iran, which is applicable in Gibraltar, is much narrower than that applicable in the US.”
The US in its request claimed that the tanker was controlled through a network of front companies by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which Washington designates as a terrorist organisation and one of the targets of its sanctions.
Gibraltar argued that the Revolutionary Guard was not designated as a terrorist organisation under EU, UK or Gibraltar law.
Iran breathed a sigh of relief, and so did Britain. The crisis has shown the UK that there are downsides to aligning with Washington in a complex issue such as the Iranian dossier where European policies and interests differ greatly from those of the Americans.
Britain has not only paid the price of this through the Iranians’ seizure of a British-flagged oil-tanker, but also by showing the weakness of British naval power after years of cuts that prompted Britain to ask for a US or European-led naval protection force in the Gulf.
The Iranian tanker had been detained off the coast of Gibraltar since 4 July, when British Royal Marines seized the vessel on the suspicion that it was carrying oil to Syria, a close ally of Iran, in violation of European Union sanctions. Iran has denied that the tanker was headed to Syria.
The ship has a cargo of at least $130 million worth of light crude oil. Its seizure led to heightened tensions in international oil-shipping routes through the Gulf, including Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, on 19 July in the Strait of Hormuz for alleged marine violations.
Now that Britain has decided that it does not want to play a part in the escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington, direct confrontation between the US and Iran may be expected.
Iran, while satisfied with the release of its oil-tanker, is aware that the risks to its ships in international waters are still on-going, as a result of the US insistence on tightening sanctions with the aim of preventing Tehran from selling its oil in the international markets.
Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani told the US channel NBC that signing the nuclear agreement with the United States was “a mistake” and that it never should have been agreed. Shamkhani said that much of the Iranian public agreed with his position that signing the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was wrong.
Shamkhani said that “the sanctions campaign is not for negotiation, it’s for making us surrender. As long as this approach is taken by the United States, Iran will never ever seek negotiations.”
Since taking office in January 2017, US President Donald Trump has used an array of new and existing sanctions against Iran. The US Treasury Department, which oversees the economic sanctions, has targeted many entities with asset freezes and business bans. The State Department has been similarly enthusiastic about imposing its own penalties including travel bans on Iranian officials.
At the same time, the administration is trying to reduce its presence in the Middle East and the cost of protecting US interests from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Afghanistan. America’s willingness to reduce its commitments in the Middle East, especially in hot spots such as these, will only help Iran in the face of continuing US pressure.
“You do not need to look far to see Iran’s ability to sabotage US interests in the region. Iran cannot reciprocate and impose sanctions on America, but it can destroy any gains made by America or its allies in Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan. Trump is hoping to force Tehran to renegotiate a new deal before Iran can move to undermine US interests on many regional fronts,” one European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“I believe Trump will not succeed in forcing Tehran to renegotiate. There are decades of mistrust of Iran in America. This week is the 66th anniversary of the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh by the CIA because he nationalised Iranian oil. The Iranians have not forgotten or forgiven,” he said.
US officials have been defending the administration’s foreign policy, saying that the sanctions against Iran are working and have denied Tehran and its proxies hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue used for destabilising activities in the Middle East and beyond. They also note that the US approach does not involve the vastly more expensive option of military action.
However, for many the argument that the tough US sanctions against Iran are keeping away the spectre of war would be more convincing if the region were not already in flames because of the tensions between Tehran and Washington.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran and the US face off