The British government said it is urgently seeking further information after a British tanker was seen to have suddenly veered off course and headed into Iranian waters, raising fears that it has been captured by the Iranian navy.
The Stena Impero, which was heading for Saudi Arabia, abruptly left the international sea lanes through the Strait of Hormuz and tracking datashowed it heading north towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, where the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has a substantial base.
The British government said it was “assessing the situation following reports of an incident in the Gulf.”
The relatively modern 30,000 tonne boat is owned by Stena Bulk. The Ministry of Defence stressed it had ships in the area but could not provide any further details of what had happened.
The incident came on a day when the authorities in Gibraltar announced they were extending the detention of an Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, seized by Britain’s Royal Marines, on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria, in violation of an EU embargo. Iran has denounced the seizure of as an act of “piracy’.
Tehran denied Donald Trump’s claim, repeated on Friday, that US forces had downed a Iranian drone over the Gulf, while a Gibraltar court extended the detention of an Iranian oil tanker seized by Britain’s Royal Marines following a breakdown in talks over where its cargo was destined. Iran has denounced the seizure as “piracy”.
The prospect of negotiations that might defuse the standoff appeared more distant than ever on Friday as a senior US administration official dismissed a nuclear deal proposed the previous date by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during a visit to New York. The official suggested the offer was not serious and called for “an actual decision maker” to enter talks to “end Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions”.
Trump has vacillated on what he wants Iran to do in return for a lifting of the oil and banking embargo the US has imposed since walking out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in May last year. The sharp response to Zarif’s offer suggests that administration hardliners, led by the national security adviser, John Bolton, are currently running Iran policy.
Zarif proposed that Iran’s parliament immediately ratify acceptance of a permanent regime of intrusive international inspections, known as the Additional Protocol, designed to ensure Iran was not building nuclear weapons covertly. Iran is currently observing the protocol under the terms of the JCPOA, and was due to ratify it, cementing it into law, in October 2023.
Zarif offered to bring that forward by more than four years, in return for immediate sanctions relief. The offer was never likely to be accepted – the US has an expansive list of demands concerning Iran’s activities – but it signal a willingness to do a deal with Washington outside the framework of the JCPOA. The US reaction, however, was scathing.
“The president has repeatedly said he is willing to have a conversation with Iranian leaders. If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately and having an actual decision maker attempt to negotiate a deal that includes a permanent end to Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles,” a senior administration official said.
Iran has consistently refused to give up uranium enrichment, which can be for both civilian and military purposes. Efforts by previous US administrations to stop it led to an exponential expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity. The JCPOA accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium but imposed strict limits on that and other elements of the nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
With the negotiating gap between Washington and Tehran as wide as ever, the contest between the two countries has shifted increasingly to the Gulf, where tankers have been targeted for sabotage, US and Iranian sailors have come into close proximity, Iran has shot down a US drone and the US claimed on Thursday to have downed an Iranian drone.
Tehran denied that claim and Iran’s top military spokesman said all drones had returned safely to base, but Trump was adamant.
“No doubt about it … we shot it down” the president said.
The latest drone incident was first revealed by Trump, who said that USS Boxer took defensive action after the droneunmanned vehicle came within 1,000 yards of the warship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.
“The drone was immediately destroyed,” Trump said, adding that unmanned aircraft had threatened the safety of the American ship and its crew, . He called on other countries to condemn Iran and protect their own ships.
The Gibraltar supreme court’s extended the detention at a hearing today after, Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, held talks with Iranian officials at the UK foreign office in London on Thursday. Picardo also held talks with Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary.
The UK has been seeking legal assurances that the tanker, if released, will not travel to Syria to unload 2.1m barrels of oil if released, as it was suspected of attempting when detained.
Tehran says it is not party to an EU embargo and insists that the ship was not bound for Syria. The foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who was in New York on Thursday, has refused to offer an alternative destination for the ship, saying it was is not in Iran’s interests to reveal how it is seeking to avoid a US-imposed embargo on all Iranian oil exports. The UK foreign office remains certain the destination was Syria.