July 5, Mohsen Rezaee, Major-General of Islamic Revolution Guard Corps unit and secretary of Iran’s political expediency Council, demanded that the British authorities release the seized Iranian oil tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar. Rezaee warned that if the demand is not fulfilled in the near future, Iran should seize some British tanker. Iranian Grace 1 ship went under the flag of Panama, it had 300,000 tons of oil on board. The tanker was on the route alternative to the Suez Canal, and circled the African continent to enter the Mediterranean through Gibraltar. July 4, a British warship detained a tanker in the strait, and 30 Marines landed on board.
An alleged Iranian ship was detained at the request of the authorities of Gibraltar (overseas territory of the United Kingdom). It could carry oil for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in violation of EU sanctions. European anti-Syrian sanctions have been in effect since 2011 and provide for an oil embargo, a ban on investment and the freezing of the assets of the central bank of Syria in the EU. 72 legal entities and 270 individuals have been subjected to the sanctions. The British Foreign Office said they were not going to discuss the Iranian side’s comments on the incident. This local incident could lead to the deterioration of Iran’s relations with the European Union, which would entail negative consequences for the Islamic Republic in the context of its confrontation with the United States.
The Iranian leadership took a conscious risk by sending an oil tanker to the Mediterranean. Iran is interested in ousting US influence from the Middle East and expanding the sphere of its interests by supporting loyal political forces in the countries of the region. Bashar Assad’s regime is a long-time partner of Iran and, along with Lebanon, represents the interests of the Islamic Republic in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tehran and Moscow provide military assistance to Damascus, opposing Syrian opposition. Now the Syrian military is conducting an offensive in the rebel-controlled region of Idlib, supported by Turkey.
Given that many oil fields are located in Syrian Kurdistan, controlled by American partners, Iranian oil could be used by the Assad regime to produce fuel for the armored vehicles used in the attack on Idlib. In the event of Damascus’s final victory in the civil war, the range of Iran’s political influence will extend from Iraq to Lebanon, where Shiite political forces interested in rapprochement with Iran won the last parliamentary elections.
The threat of the seizure of a British tanker is quite realistic. British Petroleum, a British oil and gas company, transports 15% of its hydrocarbon resources in tankers. Rezaee’s statement caused alarm in London. There was even a report about the seizure by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps on July 7 of the British oil tanker The Pacific Voyager in the Persian Gulf. The tanker stopped driving off the coast of Iran. As it turned out, the British ship just drifted. The incident in Gibraltar is not the most resonant case of Iran’s provocative behavior.
Following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (“nuclear deal”) in May 2018, the Iranians are quite aggressive and show strength to the West and secular Arab monarchies, emphasizing their exclusive independent policies in the Middle East. Iran is suspected of involvement in the hull damage of tankers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Norway and Japan in the Gulf of Oman, rocket attacks on the business district of the Iraqi city, where the offices of oil and gas companies ExxonMobil (USA), Royal Dutch Shell (UK / Holland), Eni (Italy) are located. Iranian-sponsored Hussite rebels are bombarding populated areas of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from Yemen’s territory. In May, they damaged the East-West trans-Arabian oil pipeline. In June, the Iranian military shot down an American drone RQ-4 Global Hawk and accused the States of violating the airspace of the Islamic Republic.
Iran refused to comply with the terms of the "nuclear deal," which provides for the abolition of restrictive measures in exchange for freezing its nuclear program in order to force the United States to return to its implementation. US President Donald Trump believes that the 2015 nuclear deal is not sufficient in the form in which it exists, calls on Iranians to sit down again at the negotiating table and abandon the development and production of ballistic missiles, sponsoring terrorist organizations, and not providing military assistance to Assad’s regime. July 7, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi announced that his country would increase the enrichment rate from 3.67 to 5%. The production of nuclear weapons requires uranium enriched to 20%. Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s supreme leader’s advisor on international affairs, said that enriched uranium would be used for the work of the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
The Iranian leadership is clearly overestimating its capabilities in the confrontation with the West and does not correctly align its foreign policy priorities. The incident in the Strait of Gibraltar and the subsequent threats against the United Kingdom, one of the countries participating in the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan, undermine the EU’s confidence in Iran as a constructive partner.
The incident in Gibraltar creates an excuse for the EU to introduce restrictive measures against individuals and legal entities of Iran involved in sending Grace 1 tanker. Europeans can suspend the implementation of the INSTEX mechanism. Tehran has repeatedly called on European participants in the "nuclear deal" to introduce an alternative settlement mechanism for trade in circumvention of US sanctions. The UK, France, and Germany went to meet Iran. They developed a new INSTEX payment system for trade with the Islamic Republic on the basis of barter, bypassing the US sanctions. In November 2018, the Central Bank and a number of legal entities of Iran were disconnected from the international interbank system for transmitting information and making SWIFT payments at the request of the United States.
According to the Minister of Finance and Economy of France Bruno Le Mayor, the system will start working with small operations with a subsequent increase in the volume of transactions. Other EU member states are planning to join INSTEX. Although former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi expressed skepticism about INSTEX, stressing that with several million euros that Europeans have invested in the system would not help in developing business. US sanctions dealt a serious blow to the Iranian economy. Oil exports decreased from 2.5 million to 300 thousand barrels of oil per day. The sale of black gold accounts for 80% of the income of the Islamic Republic. Inflation is growing in the country; the local currency has depreciated by 70%. In 2017-2018 Iranian exports to Europe fell by almost 18% from 10.8 billion to 8.9 billion euros. Without the support of the European Union, Iran would again be in international isolation, like until 2015, when the sanctions of the UN Security Council acted.
The incident in the Strait of Gibraltar creates a reason for bringing the US and EU positions on the Iranian issue closer together. The UK’s detention of an Iranian vessel was greeted by John Bolton, National Security Advisor of the United States. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrel believes that the tanker was detained at the request of the United States. Despite disagreements over the “nuclear deal,” the US and Europe occupy similar positions in the Syrian conflict, they are opposed to supporting the Assad regime by Iran and Russia.
If the Iranians seize the British tanker, it could end in disaster for them. In this case, the United States and the UK will receive a good argument for the use of force against Iran in response to the violation of the freedom of international navigation and the creation of a threat to the safety of British citizens (which is a NATO member country). The American and British military can arrange a small military action – to sink the Iranian warship or inflict a series of air strikes on military facilities in the country, followed by tougher sanctions.
Definitely, the use of force against Iran will not find support in the UN Security Council from Russia, China. However, Moscow is unlikely to provide effective military assistance to Tehran, given the similar precedents that have taken place. The Russians did not use force against Turkey in response to the downed Su-24 bomber in 2015. The Russian military did not open fire on American aviation, which bombed military facilities of the Assad regime in 2017-2018.