Tensions are set to rise further in West Asia as the UK announced on Monday that it would join a US-led task force to supposedly protect ships that pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The US has been drumming up support for a global task force for a while by alleging that Iran is a threat to the movement of tankers. This is despite the fact that it was the UK which seized an Iranian tanker, Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar in July. This was followed by Iran seizing three tankers on charges of smuggling oil.
A few hours before the UK’s announcement, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said the country would not tolerate maritime offenses in the region. On Sunday, Iran had seized a tanker carrying nearly 700,000 liters of fuel. Iranian officials have long raised the concern that the US or elements supported by it would orchestrate an “accident” which would be used as a pretext for declaring war. The US has substantially increased its military presence in the region.
The third tanker seized by Iran was allegedly trying to smuggle oil to the Gulf Arab states. News reports said the naval forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) detained the vessel and the seven sailors onboard, while also confiscating the oil. The IRGC claimed that the ship belonged to Iraq but the Iraqi oil ministry denied the allegation, saying that “it does not export diesel to the international market.”
On July 19, Iran seized a UK-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, alleging that the ship had violated international maritime rules. Earlier, the IRGC had seized a Panama-flagged tanker, Riah, for alleged fuel smuggling. In the first week of July, Iranian super tanker Grace 1 was seized by British marines off the coast of Gibraltar. The UK said the tanker was carrying fuel to Syria and was violating EU sanctions. However, Iran denied that the tanker was on its way to Syria and added that it was not subject to EU sanctions. It called the seizure an “act of piracy.” Observers also pointed out that it is unclear if the EU sanctions even prohibit the sale of oil to Syria and hence, the legal grounds for the seizure are dubious.