The frigate HMS Montrose trained its guns on three Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels that attempted to intercept a British-flagged tanker as it approached the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday. Coming just a week after British authorities seized an Iranian tanker engaged in violating sanctions by transporting oil to Syria, the latest confrontation underscores Tehran’s growing preference for armed aggression as a means of dealing with foreign pressure.
In late April, the U.S. dealt a major blow to Iranian finances by canceling the waivers that permitted Tehran to export a million barrels of oil per day despite the re-imposition of sanctions in November 2018. Two weeks later, Iranian attacks damaged four oil ships in the Persian Gulf. In mid-June, Iran launched another pair of attacks on foreign tankers and shot down a U.S. drone in international airspace.
Iran also persists with covert efforts to violate the sanctions it faces. These include an attempt to send two million barrels of crude oil to the regime of Bashar al-Assad aboard the supertanker Grace 1. In the early hours of July 4, after the vessel entered the UK territory of Gibraltar, British marine commandos boarded the Grace 1 and impounded it in concert with local authorities.
Gibraltar’s chief minister said the tanker was carrying crude oil to the Baniyas refinery in Syria, which is under European Union sanctions. Iranian officials denied the Grace 1 was headed for Syria, although satellite imagery shows that five Iranian tankers brought crude to Baniyas in May and June.
A former leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard called on his government to retaliate by seizing a British tanker, while the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces pledged that the British action “will not remain without response.” Yesterday, President Hassan Rouhani said the UK would face the “consequences” of its hostility.
Wary of attack, the UK tanker British Heritage cancelled its visit to an Iraqi port at the north end of the Persian Gulf and began heading southward. For protection, the Montrose was trailing the British Heritage as it prepared to exit the Gulf. “Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage” of the tanker, leading the Montrose to position itself between the Iranians and their target, said a statement from the UK Ministry of Defense. After the frigate trained its guns on the attackers and issued a verbal warning, the Iranians departed. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rejected the ministry’s account as “worthless.”
According to CNN, “two U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the incident” said Iran was seeking not merely to block the Heritage, but to seize it. This suggests Iran may have planned to take the crew hostage as well as the ship. Iran already holds at least three British-Iranian dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who recently completed a third hunger strike to protest the harsh conditions of her confinement. Iran also holds several U.S. citizens, whom – like Zaghari-Ratcliffe – the regime convicted on spurious espionage charges.
Iran’s attempted aggression validates the U.S. effort to form a new coalition to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf and nearby waters. While making defense and deterrence a priority, the U.S. should also expand its campaign to disrupt Iran’s illicit shipment of oil to Syria. Since most oil shipments transit the Suez Canal en route to Syria, the U.S. should press Cairo harder to close this bottleneck to illicit traffic.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.