Oil Tanker Hijacking is a warlike act.
Iran’s navy has seized TWO British bulk tankers transiting through the Straits of Hormuz in an act of international piracy. Hijacking an oil tanker by a nation-state is just as much a warlike act as when Somali pirates take over commercial ships and hold them for ransom.
The second seized tanker has been reportedly released after a “warning.” The first tanker Iran claims was in a collision with an Iranian fishing boat.
Now Iran is claiming that it will charge all merchant ships transiting the Straits of Hormuz a toll which they will be required to pay. Ellen Wald, writing in Forbes, reports that any toll in an international waterway is illegal.
Iran has refused to release the Stena Impero and its crew. Its owners released the following statement:
“Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management can confirm that at approximately 1600 BST on 19th July UK registered vessel Stena Impero (built 2018, 49,683 DWT) was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters. We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran.”
“Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management can confirm that at approximately 1600 BST on 19th July UK registered vessel Stena Impero (built 2018, 49,683 DWT) was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters. We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran.
“There are 23 seafarers aboard. There have been no reported injuries and their safety is of primary concern to both owners and managers. The priority of both vessel owner Stena Bulk and ship manager Northern Marine Management is the safety and welfare of the crew.
“Northern Marine Management has not been able to establish contact directly with the vessel since it was notified of the incident at approximately 1600 Today, 19th July 2019.
“We are in close contact with UK government authorities.”
Thus, at the moment, a ship and twenty three sailors are imprisoned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-Navy) of Iran.
The second British tanker seized, about thirty minutes after the first, is the Mesdar, which was released a short time after it was apprehended by IRGC personnel, suggesting Tehran demanded the IRGC-Navy release the second tanker.
What will the British do about these seizures? And what will the United States do, or what should it do?
The Iranian seizures are a direct blow to freedom of navigation, a principle that is all important to the United States, the UK and other trading nations.
Of course it is easy to see that Iran is responding in part to the seizure of a ship smuggling sanctioned oil that was stopped by the British authorities at Gibraltar. The British have offered to return the ship provided the Iranians give assurances that the ship not deliver oil to Syria, where it was headed before it was captured. Iran’s response, if that is what we are seeing in the taking of the Stena Bulk and the Mesdar, is it is not interested in giving any assurances to Britain or anyone else.
Moreover, the Iranians are making a bigger point: that Iran controls the Persian Gulf and that it is the most powerful nation in that region. That was said today by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, that President Trump’s policy toward Iran was “economic terrorism.” He went on to argue that Iran was not going to start a war and that the UAE ship, which also is now in an Iranian port, got there after it put out a distress call and was “rescued” by Iran.
All of this, of course is evidence of Iranian duplicity, just as its claim that it lost no drones the other day is nonsense. Indeed, the various excuses conjured up by Iran’s authorities are disingenuous.
But there are two big questions that are lurking.
The first is who is in charge in Iran? There is strong evidence that Iran’s political leadership is not making decisions. Evidence for this is the fact that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who is in New York (having been granted a US entry permit for a UN meeting) and who is explicitly seeking some kind of accommodation with the United States. While he was in the middle of doing that, holding private discussions, the IRGC was busy buzzing US warships and hijacking a British bulk tanker.
The above suggests strongly either that all Iranians are totally duplicitous, or in fact the IRGC is the real power in Iran and does what it wants.
No political leader would want to lose face with his counterparts in these circumstances, and thus it seems to be the case that Iran is being convulsed by its out of control Islamic Guard forces. Zarif himself was nearly kicked out of the Iranian government last month, probably on the instigation of the IRGC. But he survived, at least for now.
What this means in practical terms is that Zarif cannot be taken seriously and his mission is doomed.
Which means that the US and the UK need to devise a response that goes straight to the heart of the problem, namely the IRGC. Trying to make deals with the political leaders of Iran is a genuine non-starter, because the Guard will undermine it at every chance. It is the IRGC that appears to be the central problem, not Hasan Rouhani, the country’s President, nor Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Prime Minister and certainly not Jarad Zarif, who looks like he is finished in any event.
To put the matter in the most succinct terms, there is no one on the Iranian side to negotiate with, because no one on the Iranian side can deliver anything.
What will the UK and US do? By itself, the British will complain, maybe release the tanker in Gibraltar and hope they get their ship back from Iran. Britain effectively is without a government, and what government they do have looks incapable of taking action on anything, let alone an international confrontation that could lead to war.
The US is not actually a party since it was British tankers and thus ostensibly a British issue. Will President Trump, who is adverse to conflict, wave off for now and let the British work it out? Or will the President act more forcefully?
The answer is likely to be that Iran’s hijacking and piracy is a done deal, at least until next time.
For both Britain and the US the only appropriate military response would be to counter-attack Iran’s navy. The US Navy easily outclasses and outguns the Iranians.
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