Iran’s risky new strategy

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The most important waterway for the oil trade is the conflict between Iran and the West. The leadership in Tehran has apparently changed its approach.

After the confiscation of two British oil tankers by Iran, new escalations threaten the Persian Gulf. Tehran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Sarif declared on Saturday that his country claims a guardian role over the Strait of Hormus, the most important waterway in the international oil trade. This is an open declaration of war to the USA, which is patrolling the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormus with its war fleet.

On Friday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had two British tankers moored in the Strait of Hormus, one of which was allowed to continue. The second tanker, the “Stena Impero”, was diverted to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas by the 23-man crew. At first Iran had justified the action with the fact that the “Stena Impero” had collided with an Iranian fishing boat and that the incident had to be cleared up.

On Saturday, however, the Iranian regime made it clear that the seizure was a political threat. The influential Guardian Council declared that international law gave Iran the opportunity to defend itself against “illegitimate economic sanctions and confiscate oil tankers”.

On Friday, a court in British Gibraltar ruled that an Iranian tanker detained on suspicion of violating EU sanctions against Syria should not continue its voyage for the time being.

Great Britain, France and Germany – three co-signatories of the 2015 nuclear treaty with Iran – criticised Tehran’s actions. The British government warned Tehran against “illegal and destabilising behaviour”. The oil tanker had been stopped in the waters of Oman, said British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt. The incident raises serious questions about international shipping, Hunt told journalists on Saturday.

The Foreign Office in Berlin “emphatically” called on Tehran to “immediately release” the “Stena Impero” and its crew. “A further regional escalation would be very dangerous,” a ministry spokesman said.

Iran wants to relax sanctions through pressure

It is unlikely that Iran will be impressed by this. Sarif threatened to take countermeasures a few days ago. Iran will “always respond”, he told the US magazine “New Yorker”. The lesson is: “Don’t play with Iran”.

On Saturday, Sarif went one step further. It is Iran that “guarantees security in the Persian Gulf and in the Strait of Hormus,” Sarif wrote on Twitter.  Great Britain must free itself from the “economic terrorism” of the USA, Zarif added with a view to the American sanctions against his country.

Oil tankers transport around 20 percent of the world’s traded oil from the Persian Gulf through the road from Hormus to the international markets, which in some cases is only 40 kilometers wide. Iran had already threatened several times to close the shipping route in order to defend itself against US sanctions.

The action against the “Stena Impero” is also remarkable because Iran, in the tensions with the USA, had so far paid attention to being able to distance itself from attacks and provocations. In June, for example, Tehran rejected responsibility for attacks on several tankers in the Persian Gulf. This time the Iranian Revolutionary Guards intervened quite openly.

Apparently the Iranian leadership expects a tougher course to have more impact on the international community in order to achieve a relaxation of US sanctions. This policy, however, entails the risk of US military strikes. For the first time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US is now sending troops to Saudi Arabia.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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