The operator, Stena Bulk, appeared to support the British government’s assessment with Tuesday’s statement regarding the status of the crew. It noted that the ship, Stena Impero, had begun to transit the Strait of Hormuz in full compliance with international regulations prior to its seizure. Tehran reported on Saturday that the commercial vessel had collided with an Iranian fishing boat, but the official explanation has since changed to indicate that Iranian authorities were merely worried about the possibility of such a collision after the Impero entered the narrow Strait improperly, via its exit lane.
On Monday, Iranian state media release footage of the seizure, with multiple camera angles depicting it being surrounded by IRGC gunboats before commandos in black ski masks descended to the deck from a helicopter hovering overhead. The publicly released footage did not, however, show any of the supposedly dangerous behavior that Iran cited to justify taking custody of the Impero. The statement from Stena Bulk effectively contradicted any allegation of wrongdoing on the part of its ship, although it was presumably prepared before the specific allegation of wrong-directional travel emerged.
It is not clear whether Tehran is even committed to maintaining that cover story for what British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described as a clear example of “state piracy.” Hunt explained on Saturday that he had had a long conversation with his Iranian counterpart over the incident and had come away with the clear impression that Tehran sees a “tit-for-tat situation” playing out between the United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic. Hunt also rejected this notion by underscoring the legality of the July 4 seizure of the Grace 1 supertanker near Gibraltar.
As well as carrying Iranian oil that is under worldwide sanction by the United States, the Grace 1 was reportedly en route to Syria, where it planned to offload the oil for refineries affiliated with the government of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian dictator and his regime have been placed under sanction by the entire European Union, in response to multiple severe human rights violations carried out during the eight-year Syrian Civil War. Many critics of the Iranian regime hold it partly responsible for Assad’s crimes, in light of the unqualified defense that Tehran and the IRGC gave to their ally throughout that war, often via direct paramilitary assistance.
Despite apparently connecting the seizure of the Grace 1 to that of the Stena Impero in private conversation with the British Foreign Secretary, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contradicted this position in public remarks on Monday while his was visiting Nicaragua. This was preceded by a meeting of the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations in nearby Venezuela, where Zarif gave a speech denouncing American “unilateralism” and emphasizing Iranian opposition to Western influence, but did not mention the seizure of the Impero.
That silence might be partly attributable to outstanding disagreements within the Iranian regime about how to publicly explain and discuss the provocative incident. But those disagreements did not appear to be resolved as of Tuesday, by which time Zarif was specifically denying that the seizure was retaliation for the Grace 1, while even higher regime authorities were saying exactly the opposite.
Fars News Agency, an outlet that is closely associated with the Revolutionary Guards, quoted a spokesperson for the Guardian Council as saying that Friday’s action was legal specifically because it was a “reciprocal action.” The Guardian Council is tasked with overseeing the office of the Supreme Leader and with replacing him in the event of his death or retirement. Its membership has also become increasingly dominated by IRGC affiliates over time, meaning that its rare public comments on matters of state can generally be regarded as reflecting the shared outlook of both these hardline authorities.
Furthermore, although Zarif has struck a more diplomatic tone in discussing the Impero incident publicly, this does not necessarily indicate that there is a fundamental difference of opinion between the regime’s avowed hardliners and the supposed reformists who head the administration of President Hassan Rouhani. In fact, the apparent distance between those factions appears to have narrowed in the midst of the ongoing escalation in the region, with Rouhani and Zarif contributing to public commentary that rejects the notion of negotiations with the US while boasting about missile development and plans for closing off the Strait of Hormuz altogether.
Few independent analysts believe that Tehran can follow through on this threat, although many acknowledge that asymmetrical warfare tactics including the use of sea mines could create additional problems for international shipping and Western naval forces. Meanwhile, Iranian officials have made every effort to project an image of strength in response to the expansion of US sanctions. The Impero seizure is easily interpreted as an aspect of this project, and it was preceded by public statements from figures including former IRGC head Mohsen Rezai, which introduced the idea of taking possession of a British vessel in retaliation for the Grace 1.
Even before that, the IRGC had apparently spearheaded other, more clandestine efforts to assert its dominance of the area surrounding the Strait. In May and June, six tankers were sabotaged near the United Arab Emirates and in the Gulf of Oman. At least two of the targets were damaged by limpet mines that are known to be used by the IRGC, and in one of these, US military surveillance recorded an IRGC boat approaching the damaged vessel and removing an unexploded mine from its hull.
Soon thereafter, the IRGC shot down an American surveillance drone, prompting President Donald Trump to order a retaliatory strike before withdrawing the order in order to prevent a death toll that he deemed to be disproportionate. But the US did eventually move toward a leveling of the scales when, last Thursday, the USS Boxer destroyed an Iranian drone that had flown too close to the ship. Iran predictably denied that the incident took place, and the IRGC released footage from a surveillance drone shadowing US warship, claiming without explanation that this constituted proof that no shoot-down had occurred.
That footage was further praised by hardline Iranian officials in the following days, to support other inflated claims about the Islamic Republic’s military capability and its readiness for conflict with the US and its allies. Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, the head of Iran’s naval forces, suggested in an interview published on Tuesday that Iranian surveillance of the Persian Gulf is equal to or greater than that of the US. “Our drones have significant ranges and have no limitations in communication links. We have a complete archive of images of American vessels approaching from very far distances,” he said.
In reality, it is feasible that Iran is capable of keeping a close eye on traffic through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, but far less likely that its surveillance extends well past both entrances to the Strait, as Khanzadi seemed to suggest. Neither is it likely that such surveillance would set the stage for an effective military response to coordinated efforts at safeguarding regional waters against threats from Iran.
Nonetheless, hardliners continue to boast to the regime’s allies and supporters about its prospects for either rebuffing or staving off any number of foreign attacks. Toward that end, Ali Akbar Velayati, a leading advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei told a visiting delegation from Hamas that the Impero seizure and the downing of a US drone were both “milestones in the history of Muslims’ struggle” and signs that a “resistance front” against Western powers is stronger than ever.
Despite all this, many Iranian officials continue to insist that the Islamic Republic is not courting conflict through such actions. Foreign Minister Zarif has been a leading proponent of that message, though his communications with Western officials have also seemingly included veiled threats of military retaliation against non-military pressure. In a message on Twitter congratulating Boris Johnson on his appointment as the new Prime Minister of the UK, Zarif said, “Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1,500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters & we will protect them.”
It remains to be seen what new actions the British government will take under Johnson’s leadership to address the growing crisis in the Persian Gulf. But it was reported on Tuesday that Foreign Secretary Hunt had begun pushing for a European-led maritime protection force to prevent further incidents similar to the seizure of the Impero. Although Hunt insisted that the UK was still committed to a diplomatic resolution and had no intention of signing onto the American strategy of “maximum pressure,” this idea appears very similar to the Sentinel program designed by the Pentagon and the US State Department, for which the Trump administration is currently seeking partners.
Indeed, the US and UK have said much the same thing about their respective maritime cooperation strategies, namely that they are not military in nature. Trump has personally called upon Western allies to condemn Iran’s efforts to disrupt maritime trade, and the governments of both France and Germany did so in the wake of the Impero incident. But these and other nations reportedly remain wary of signing onto the Sentinel program or joining the US in imposing very extensive economic sanctions.
On the other hand, France and Germany have worked very closely with Britain to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal while also keeping pressure on the Islamic Republic in certain areas. The focus of that pressure has naturally expanded along with Iran’s provocative activities in the region, and it is fairly likely that the other two European countries will prove willing to join a British-led protection arrangement, even if it is indistinguishable from the plan currently being advanced by the US.