Iran-UK maritime crisis


M Omar Iftikhar

CONTRADICTING views are surfacing from Iran and the UK following the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker was captured by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces. Tension between Tehran and UK has escalated quickly following Iran seizing the ship. Where Iran’s attempt to compel the vessel to halt during its journey has challenged international freedom of navigation, as claimed by the British authorities, this has also stirred a diplomatic crisis. Nothing can be said with certainty over what had transpired between the crew of the Stena Impero and the IRGC because both sides are giving different statements.
The IRGC claims that the vessel was smuggling fuel while the British authorities have denied any such activity being carried out by the vessel. Moreover, three pieces of detail have been shared by the IRGC which became the premise for the vessel’s capturing. According to the IRGC, the Stena Impero had shut down all of its Global Positioning System. The vessel was also said to be, as per the IRGC’s statement, entering into the Strait of Hormuz through the exit and was trying to continue with its journey by exiting the Strait from its entrance. The IRGC also claims that the Stena Impero was not paying any heed to the maritime navigational warning signals sent to it.
Moreover, the US claims that the IRGC endangered the ship after an Iranian drone was shot by the US Navy ship in the Strait. The Iranian authorities have negated the possibility of any such event. The IRGC has claimed, on the other hand, that the Stena Impero was smuggling fuel, which – if not proved – may seriously affect Iran and weaken its stance with regards to the resolution of this situation.
According to Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Iran can face grave penalties if the tanker is not released. Diplomatic actions by both countries must go underway to resolve the crisis. However, this action by Iran may not bode well with the relations it has with the UK. Foreign Secretary Hunt has said, “Our Ambassador in Tehran is in contact with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to resolve the situation and we are working closely with international partners.” Among these international partners, the major one is the United States. The US State Department spokesperson has said, “The United States strongly condemns the IRGC Navy’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with safe passage in and around the Strait of Hormuz.”
With the United States’ say and opinion now an important part in solving this crisis, Iran’s actions may also put its ties with the US on thin ice. Therefore, a steady de-escalation of this maritime predicament must come forth soon before the US or the UK takes a military step against Iran to create another regional crisis. According to the US command of this region in the Persian Gulf, Iran may have to pay a price for hindering in the route of Stena Impero. This may also include imposing sanctions. During the last many years, the US has imposed sanctions on Iran hampering its trade, business and economic activities. If a ban of any sort is imposed on Iran, the IRGC may create difficulties for vessels from other countries passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The need of the hour is to resolve the crisis while retaining the sanctity of the diplomatic ties Iran has with the US and Britain.
Marine General, Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has opined that the United States is expecting its allies to develop a military alliance. This coalition will protect and preserve the strategic waters off the coast of Yemen and Iran. However, before any policy is suggested and a strategy is outlined, the US and its alliances must take into confidence the basin countries of the Strait of Hormuz namely: Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Even if a strategy is put into effect, its long-term implications may have a radical effect on the diplomatic ties of the US with these basin countries.
Authorities, military officials, maritime decision-makers from the US, UK and Iran must converge to strategize how best to resolve this maritime crisis. They must also agree upon a policy to effectively manage the journey of vessels passing through the Persian Gulf, especially through the Strait of Hormuz.
— The writer is a freelance columnist based in Karachi.