The UK’s Dubious Role in the New Tanker War With Iran

By Prabir Purkayastha, the founding editor of, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the Free Software movement. Produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The standoff between the U.S.and Iran is now developing into a reenactment of the tanker wars in the Persian Gulf during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War. The United Kingdom seems to have become a part of the U.S.scheme of baiting Iran into military action, triggering a war. How else do we make sense of its seizure of an Iranian supertanker with 2 million barrelsof crude in the Gibraltar waters? Has Britain added its name to the B-team (named after the alliterative names of its members:  John Bolton, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and Mohammad bin Salman) against Iran? Or is the UK, with Brexit looming over it, buttering the U.S.’s bread?

The Strait of Hormuz, the outlet from the Persian Gulf, is the world’s biggest oil transit choke point. A new war would have enormous consequences for the world, particularly India, China and Japan—with their main source of oil coming through this route.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was originally agreed to by six countries—the U.S., Russia, China, three European Unioncountries (the EU-3: France, the UK, Germany)—and Iran. The JCPOA led Iran to limit its nuclear program in lieu of the withdrawal of sanctions on it. Are the EU-3, along with Russia and China, willing to confront the U.S.on its reimposing of crippling sanctions on Iran that are in violation of JCPOA? And are they willing to work out a mechanism to pay for Iran’s oil, and supply it with vital goods that its economy needs?

The story of U.S.exceptionalism—of holding others to international law which it refuses to abide by—is a long one. Of this long list, the U.S.’scomplaint to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board charging Iran with violation of the JCPOA agreement must rank as one of its most brazens acts of hypocrisy. Predictably, the EU-3, despite being the U.S.’s NATO allies, could not publicly endorse this line. They recognized that a U.S.charge against Iran of violating the JCPOA must take into account that the U.S.has not only abandoned the JCPOA, but also imposed fresh economic and nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.

Another example of U.S. exceptionalism is the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which the U.S.has repeatedly raised with respect to the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. The U.S. has yet to ratify the treaty, while arguing that others must not only be held to the letter of the convention, but also the U.S.interpretation.

The EU-3 is now in a hard place. It either sides with the U.S.on isolating Iran, or it aligns with Russia and China to work out measures to break Iran’s economic isolation. Otherwise, Iran has no incentive to stay within the JCPOA. Though Iran has exceeded the stockpile limits under the JCPOA, it has remained within the prescribed responses of the agreement, and allowed the IAEA inspectors full freedom of inspection and verification of its nuclear program. Yukiya Amano, the current head of the IAEA, has called the IAEA’s verification regime under the JCPOA the strongestand most robustin IAEA’s history.

Iran has also said that it will not only follow graded response to the sanctions, including possible exiting from the JCPOA, but also reconsider its participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a thinly veiled threat to follow in North Korea’s footsteps. It is clear that Iran will fight the status quo arising out of Trump’s maximum pressure policies in various ways, and not allow itself to be economically strangulated.

The UK’s position has now become very dubious. Why did it seize Iran’s supertanker Grace 1 in the Gibraltarwaters? Four of Grace 1’s officers, including the ship’s captain, all Indians, have been charged in a Gibraltar court and are now out on bail.

In a new twist on this issue, we now know that Gibraltar changed its law underpinning the seizure just one day before it occurred. This adds weight to reports in Spain quoting government sources that the UK carried out the seizing of the tanker under U.S.instructions.

The argument that Grace 1 was carrying crude oil to Syria’s Baniyas refinery, and so was violating European sanctions on Syria, sounds weak on various counts.The Gibraltar court’s order mentions EU Regulation 36/2012 on sanctions on Syria as the basis for action against Grace 1. Oil exports from Syria tothe EU have been banned, but not oil imports to Syria under EU regulations. Also, imports to the Baniyas refinery are banned for machinery and equipment, not oil.

More important: In international trade, do countries through which transit takes place have the right to impose their laws on the merchandise in transit? For example, can pharmaceutical products from India, which arein consonance with Indian and the receiving country’s laws, be seized in transit in Europe if they violate the EU’s patent laws? Such seizures have happened, creating a trade dispute between India and the EU. The EU finally agreed not to seize such goods in transit. So can the EU extend its sanctions to goods in transit through its waters? Assuming the crude was indeed for Syria—which Iran has denied—do EU sanctions apply when transiting through Gibraltar waters? In short, was the UK imposing EU sanctions on Syria—or U.S.sanctions on Iran?

There has also been another incident involving Iran and the UK in the developing Tanker War 2. This makes the UK’s role even more suspect. Iran has denied the UK’s story of its empty tanker Heritage being blocked by Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf. The U.S., which first broke the story, claimed it was five Iranian boats that tried to seizea British tanker. The UK authorities claimed that it was three Iranian boats that were impeding the tanker’s journey, which were driven off by a British warship. The Iranians deny that any such incident took place. No video or satellite image of the incident has been made public, though a U.S.aircraft reportedly took video footage of the incident. In his Twitter feed, BBC’s Defense Correspondent Jonathan Beale condemned the failure of the British government to release images of the incident: “UK MOD say they will NOT be releasing any imagery from incident in Gulf when @HMS_MONTROSE confronted #Iran IRGC boats. Shame as far as I’m concerned.”

What remains unexplained is why the empty UK tanker switched off its transponder before the alleged incident for about 24 hours, particularly in the period when it was passing through the Strait of Hormuz—or why an empty tanker was accompanied by a British warship. Was the UK baiting Iran by manufacturing a maritime incident in the Gulf?

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said on Twitter that after a phone call with Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, he offered to release the tanker Grace 1 on the condition that it will not send the oil to Syria. This still begs the question of the UK’s locus in deciding the destination of Iranian oil—or why Iran should accept EU sanctions.

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  1. bruce

    The problem with Iran is, they think they’re a sovereign nation, but everyone else thinks they’re a global oil colony.

    1. vidimi

      good comment, but by everyone else, you mean NATO (and by NATO, i mean the US and its vassals)?

        1. James

          But China never overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government and replaced it with a dictatorship in order to get access to Iranian oil. Instead they negotiated with Iran and came to agreements – a slightly different approach.

    2. Carolinian

      The other problem is the US/UK “might makes right” approach to foreign relations falls apart if it turns out your opponent is mightier than you thought.

      Patrick Cockburn wrote a column saying UK Tory administration doesn’t seem to realize that Britannia no longer rules the waves. And they are a lot more vulnerable to Iranian retaliation than we are. Or maybe they do realize it. There was a story the other day that they are ready to release the Grace1 after “guarantees.”

    3. rd

      That is why the British can seize a tanker in their version of the Straits of Hormuz (Gibralter sitting athwart the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean) while everybody goes nuts if the Iranians do anything to transit through the Straits of Hormuz.

      If Egypt were to start detaining ships in the Suez Canal or Turkey restricting transit through the Bosporus, there would be streams of anguish over that as well.

      It appears international laws and conventions only work in one direction.

      1. Susan the other`

        Question: Why did the US/UK allow the Grace-1 to make it all the way to Gibraltar and then sequester it, its crew and its oil? Because that oil was destined for a refinery in Syria. Let’s repeat that – a refinery in Syria. Or more to the point a refinery we do not control. The confusion between the sanctions on Syria and Iran allows us to control the flow of MidEast oil to our refinery and oil hub of choice – Israel. I doubt the Grace will turn around and take the oil back to Iran. And to make the situation even pricklier we have now, for the first time (in my memory) sent troops to Saudi Arabia. Always before we deferred to the Saudis because we didn’t want to antagonize their radical Islam faction. So that one also is flying right under the radar. Why are we no longer pretending to be indulgent when it comes to Islam’s claim agains us as imperialists. That’s the scariest part for me.

        1. RMO

          “we have now, for the first time (in my memory) sent troops to Saudi Arabia”

          …. Operation Desert Shield/Storm ring a bell? And the US forces remaining in Saudi Arabia afterwards were listed by Bin Laden as one of the primary reasons he turned against the US.

            1. bruce

              This is true, and the Khobar reference illustrates another point: None of those 500 additional troops we just sent to KSA will make a damn bit of difference if there’s a war, because the nature of warfare has evolved. Half of them would come back in body bags. The most salient factors: KSA has a LOT of above-ground oil infrastructure, and Iran has medium-range missiles with conventional warheads. Uh-oh. I sure hope nobody does anything rash that would drive the price of gas over $20/gallon by Labor Day.

            1. Ian Perkins

              Not sure which country you were referring to, but the UK has had troops in Saudi Arabia for a while. Interestingly, as well as soldiers to show the Saudis how to use the weapons they’ve bought, they include members of the Special Boat Service – just who you’d expect to be involved in false flag attacks on tankers …

  2. The Rev Kev

    Been trying to nut out why the UK is being so reckless in pushing its military into eastern Europe to confront the Russians, suggesting they push their military into Asia to confront China, and now pushing a coupla warships into the Gulf to confront Iran which included using dubious laws to seize an Iranian ship. Hyping up stories about the Iranians and Syrians is getting par for the course too. Being used as a cat’s paw for what Washington wants does not seem a game worth the candle and yet that is what the UK is doing here. After Brexit the UK will need all the friends that they can make but reckless behaviour like this article indicates they think that they can do this anyway. The only thing that seems to make sense is that the UK government is so weak at the moment through Brexit that it is not able to impose any real order or control over their defense or intelligence services and that these departments are more or less going their own way as the supervision is no longer really there. Otherwise I am at a loss to explain this self-destructive behaviour.

    1. TheMog

      Not to mention that they also managed to aggravate a fellow NATO member – Spain – with this act of piracy, err, “enforcement of random sanctions”. I distinctly recall Spain’s foreign minister making a statement along the lines of the tanker having been seized in what he considers Spanish territorial waters, although I’m guessing that whose territorial waters these are is also open to interpretation due to the disagreement between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar.

      It does make you wonder what the end game is, when the maybe-soon-to-be-ex-EU member state demonstrates that they’re willing to essentially randomly close the Straits of Gibraltar to traffic they (or the US) don’t like, consequences be damned. I’m sure that’s going to go down really well with the other EU countries that rely on shipping through the Straits.

      1. Noel Nospamington

        In a no-deal Brexit, let’s hope that the Spanish impose a peaceful land blockade of Gibraltar.

        Of course I also hope that the Moroccans do the same to the hypocritical Spanish in Ceuta, Melilla, Perejil Island, etc.

        Unfortunately, a blockade would not remain peaceful and likely escalate into a military conflict, which would not be in the interest of any party.

        British colonialism is just as bad as Spanish colonialism.

    2. Lambert Strether

      C’mon, let’s be fair. If the Brits won’t act as our catspaws against Iran, we might not sell them our chlorinated chicken after Brexit!

      A very unserious response to a serious comment!

      1. wilroncanada

        In standard disaster capitalist tradition–time to get England, especially if Brexit causes the breakup of the once great Great Britain–to petition to petition (beg) to become an actual state of the US. It could be called New England.

      2. Ian Perkins

        It’s the crap on the chickens that’s chlorinated. The chickens are collateral damage, so to speak. It’s cheaper than washing them.

    3. Tony Wright

      The UK is currying favour with Trump and Bolton for brownie points so that they can get a trade deal with the US post Brexit.

      1. Procopius

        I dunno, what they’re doing is very weird. Seizure of the ship has to have been authorized by someone — who? Whatever happened to the incredibly bizarre Skripal case? I vaguely recall two suspects were arrested — whatever happened to them? Does anybody know if Sergei and Yulia are alive? What happened to the boys who fed the ducks the bread they got from Sergei? Did they get sick while the ducks died?
        Why does Great Britain want to promote a war with the Russian Federation?
        At the moment I’m just hoping Bibi gets decisively beaten in September.

        1. John A

          To Procopius,
          Nobody has been arrested. The Atlantic Council propaganda ‘investigative journalism (sic) website’ Bellingcat, claimed they had identified 2 guys from dodgy facial recognition software, that had been spotted on CCTV cameras around Salisbury, but with no published footage of them being anywhere near the Skripal house or the park bench where the Russian and his daughter were found and treated by the Head nurse of the British Army, who ‘happened to be passing’, what were the chances…., as Russian secret service agents and inferred they had poisoned the door knob. These alleged secret service agents had partied very loudly over the weekend in a very seedy hotel in east London, allegedly with hookers and cannabis etc., and travelled together in and out of the country.

  3. notabanker

    The key to getting the full on war going with Iran will be Israel. Biden, Pelosi and company will need cover to not condemn Trump for it. Anti-semitism seems to be the in vogue excuse.

  4. timbers

    How to solve the stand off and deescalate war tensions?

    Here’s my view. From the article….

    “Though Iran has exceeded the stockpile limits under the JCPOA, it has remained within the prescribed responses of the agreement, and allowed the IAEA inspectors full freedom of inspection and verification of its nuclear program. Yukiya Amano, the current head of the IAEA, has called the IAEA’s verification regime under the JCPOA the “strongest”and “most robust” in IAEA’s history.”

    Iran acquires a nuclear arsenal with missiles to deliver them. It then invites the IAEA in to inspect and verity Iran is a fully functional nuclear armed nation.

    IAEA declares Iran to be a fully functional nuclear armed nation.

    Only then will this all blow over and tensions ease, IMO.

    That, or maybe some random Democrat wins the WH and goes back to Obama’s Iran policy.

    1. Procopius

      It would take Iran years to develop a nuclear arsenal. It’s not happening now and the Ayatollah Khamenei has forbidden it through a fatwa. Iran reduced the number of centrifuges it had and those cannot be replaced quickly. The U.S. media always talks about “the Iranian nuclear program,” which Americans understand is a weapons development effort, but it’s for electrical generation, not weapons. The U.S. Intelligence Community has stated that Iran has made no effort to create a nuclear weapons program since at least 2003.

      Iran gaining nuclear weapons is not going to happen.

  5. Oregoncharles

    “A new war would have enormous consequences for the world, particularly India, China and Japan—with their main source of oil coming through this route.”

    What’s the break-even price point for fracking? Is the war-with-Iran push mostly about pushing up the price of oil? That was one theory about the war with Iraq.

    A strategic question: both Saudi Arabia and Iran have ocean ports that evade the Strait of Hormuz, as do Oman and Yemen. How dependent are they on shipping through the Strait?

    1. abj

      That’s rather reckless. You can’t just take to the high seas and swipe a ship like that. As dubious as the justification for its seizure was, at least the Grace-1 was within territorial waters which meant the Gibraltar authorities were at least legally entitled to take action. Boarding and seizing a neutral vessel in international waters is very much a no-no under international law. (Cue whataboutery from the peanut gallery.)

      1. Ian Perkins

        “You can’t just take to the high seas and swipe a ship like that.”
        They just did. As for international law, that went out the window a while back. Remember the UK/US led invasion of Iraq? I’ll bet the Iranians do. Starting a war is very much the biggest no-no under international law.

      2. James

        Are you saying that the Straight of Gilbralter is not an international waterway? Just because UK authorities say something, that does not mean that it is true.

        1. abj

          I’m saying that part of the Strait of Gibraltar is territorial waters (Gibraltar, Spain, Morocco), just like coastal waters of any shipping channel, and the freely available tracker data shows clearly that Grace-1 was in that part that is Gibraltar’s territorial waters, not the international channel that runs down the middle. The same data shows clearly that Stena Impero was in the international channel on the Omani side of strait before it was seized.

          Given that the UK has previously embroiled itself in an illegal war, it seems a bit silly to hand them an easy excuse to start one legally. This incident just plays into the US narrative of Iran being a terrorist state (which it somehow maintains unironically while in bed with the Saudis).

  6. RBHoughton

    What’s happening here is the UK Ministry, acting for BP and the bit of Shell that it owns, is pursuing its imperial faith in the belief that whoever controls the energy controls the world.

  7. Sound of the Suburbs

    Iran is dangerous, very dangerous.

    Iran has missiles that can reach Israel and Israel has got nuclear weapon to retaliate.

    Iran is a flash point that can easily trigger a nuclear holocaust.

  8. Ian Perkins

    Following the detention of the Stena Impero, the UK government convened a meeting of COBRA (Cabinet Office briefing room A), its emergency response team. It appears that Boris Johnson, who will probably be Prime Minister in a few days’ time, was not there. Which presumably means there will be no coherent response for a while.

      1. Tony Wright

        Boris is probably busy doing vital strategic work on his model buses.
        Don’t disturb him.

  9. nothing but the truth

    UK needs a diversion from brexit. It deliberately provoked Iran first.

    and it wants some brownie points with Yizrael (looks like the entire “free” world now works for them).

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