Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Dominic Raab: UK will not exchange seized oil tankers with Iran

Announcement by UK's foreign minister likely to raise tension in the Arabian Gulf

A composite image showing Dominic Raab, Britain's new foreign secretary and the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker, held by Gibraltar, above, and the British-flagged Stena Impero, held by Iran off Bandar Abbas. Photos Bloomberg, Reuters and EPA 
A composite image showing Dominic Raab, Britain's new foreign secretary and the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker, held by Gibraltar, above, and the British-flagged Stena Impero, held by Iran off Bandar Abbas. Photos Bloomberg, Reuters and EPA 

Britain on Monday rejected a possible exchange of oil tankers with Iran, a decision likely to make it more difficult for London to muster EU support for an European naval coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf.

The announcement by the new foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is set to further raise tension in the Gulf, where western countries and some of their allies have increased their naval presence after the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps captured the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19. It was the latest in a series of Iranian escalations around the Gulf, which have included the downing of a US surveillance drone.

On July 4, British Royal Marines seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar, saying it was transporting 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil to the Syrian regime in contravention of EU sanctions.

The Royal Navy's HMS Montrose escorts two vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. AFP
The Royal Navy's HMS Montrose escorts two vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. AFP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested last week the possibility of a swap if Britain reverses "their wrong actions, including what they did in Gibraltar".

But Mr Raab told BBC radio there would be “no quid pro quo”.

“This is not about some kind of barter. This is about the international law and the rules of the international legal system being upheld and that is what we will insist on."

Mr Raab said the Grace I violation of sanctions deemed its interception lawful, as opposed to the Stena Impero, which he said was "unlawfully detained."

This is not about some kind of barter. This is about the international law.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab

Mr Raab said his government still hopes to set up a European protection naval force in the Gulf. European support for the proposal so far has been lacking and it is not clear how it would fit within a parallel US proposal for an international force.

The Suddeutsche Zeitung has reported that the junior coalition party has blocked Berlin offering its naval capabilities. A leading member of the SPD parliamentary party has warned of an “enormous escalation risk” as London lines up behind Washington.

“After the takeover by Boris Johnson remains to be seen whether the old initiatives announced by the previous government still have life,” said the acting SPD parliamentary leader and foreign policy spokesman, Rolf Mützenich. "Britain is now returning to a robust American-flagged military mission."

Noting regional concerns and efforts to scale back tensions, Mr Mützenich said Germany should also "do everything for a diplomatic solution".

"I advise those who are now hastily committed to taking certain steps not to disturb the de-escalation talks," he added.

Meanwhile Hans-Peter Bartels, the Federal Armed Forces Commissioner, confirmed that Berlin was not in a position to contribute more ships. "The German Navy is known to be at the limit," he said.

Britain's rejection of a tanker swap with Iran runs counter to an accommodating position toward Tehran in Paris, Berlin and the EU headquarters in Brussels. The European powers did not support Britain's seizure of the Grace I and have avoided serious enforcement of EU sanctions that could undermine Tehran's support for President Bashar Al Assad. The EU dismissed Iranian latest violations of the 2015 nuclear deal as insignificant.

The HMS Duncan, Britain’s most advanced warship, arrived in the Gulf on Sunday, joining another British warship in patrolling the region.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: "While we continue to push for a diplomatic resolution that will make this possible again without military accompaniment, the Royal Navy will continue to provide a safeguard for UK vessels until this is the reality.”

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington had also asked Japan, France, Germany, South Korea, Australia and other countries to join a security pact to protect shipping in the Gulf.

The tanker standoff comes amid heightened tension between the US and Iran over the nuclear deal. Iran, whose economy is reeling from US sanctions, has oscillated between accepting and rejecting the US offer to re-enter fresh negotiations, made after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal to varying reactions by the international community.

Adding to US ambiguity on Monday, US President Donald Trump tweeted that Iran had “never won a war, but never lost a negotiation.”

Since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, Mr Trump has urged Iran to negotiate and maintained that all options remain on the table in preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

An Iranian foreign ministry official said on Monday that Tehran was ready to talk with the US once an agenda is agreed upon. It was the most concrete positive response by Iran to the US offer of negotiations.

But the Iranian position has appeared to vary depending on whether it comes from the hardline centre of power, represented by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali and the IRGC, or from the somewhat softer public face represented by the presidency and the foreign ministry.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told state-owned Press TV on Monday that negotiations “can be held when we have a certain agenda in place and when we could get some tangible and practical results out of it". He said he did not believe the US was genuine about seeking talks.

Only last week, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei said Tehran would not negotiate under any circumstances.

On Monday, Mr Pompeo also expressed doubt that negotiations would resume anytime soon, saying that Tehran has “not taken me up on my offer yet.”

Speaking at the Economic Club in Washington, Mr Pompeo said US sanctions have cut Iran’s oil exports by 95 per cent. He again condemned Iran as the “world’s main sponsor of terrorism.”

When asked about when will a new deal sought by Mr Trump might be reached, Mr Pompeo said: “I don’t do time, timelines are fool’s errand in my business.”

Earlier this week, Mr Pompeo offered to visit Tehran and talk directly to the Iranian people, saying that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “enjoys the right to speak freely” when he visits the United States.

On Sunday, Mr Pompeo tweeted: “Are the facts of the [Khamenei] regime so bad he cannot let me do the same thing in Tehran? What if his people heard the truth, unfiltered, unabridged?”

Updated: July 30, 2019 02:22 AM

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