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Iran Pairs Diplomacy with Military Pushback as Gulf Tensions Soar

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Ships plying the Strait of Hormuz are getting caught in the middle as Iran pushes back against U.S. sanctions and maneuvers around a more muscular American regional presence, raising the risk of direct military confrontation.

A British-flagged oil tanker Iran seized on Friday became the latest casualty of an Iranian response to perceived aggression that stops short of full conflict. Iran initially said it impounded the British vessel after it collided with a fishing boat. But the move was widely seen as retaliation for British forces this month seizing an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that was allegedly transporting oil to Syria.

The Iranian seizure came a day after the U.S. Navy said it had shot down an Iranian drone over the Persian Gulf—which Iran denied—and involved Revolutionary Guard forces rappelling onto the deck from a helicopter.

A helicopter hovers over British-flagged tanker Stena Impero near the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.


Photo:

reuters tv/Reuters

The U.K. government on Sunday defended the lack of protection afforded to the British ship.

“It isn’t possible simply to escort each and every single vessel,” Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood said. The U.K. is sending an additional destroyer and support ship to the area so that the HMS Montrose can refuel at sea as opposed to having to come into port.

In a sign of Tehran trying to defuse tensions, Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh said the issue of the Gibraltar-confiscated oil tanker carrying Iranian crude was being dealt with. “There is no particular problem in this regard,” Mr. Zanganeh told Iranian news agency ISNA.

Gulf Drama

Iranian forces seized a U.K.-flagged vessel bound for Saudi Arabia and briefly boarded a U.K.-managed tanker.

U.K.-flagged

tanker seized

U.K.-managed

tanker boarded

However, Britain is still weighing what response to take to the ship’s seizure, officials said. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is due to make a statement outlining the response on Monday afternoon. Asset freezes or further sanctions aimed at Iran are the most likely routes that will be taken, some analysts said.

A recording of tense radio exchanges about the Stena Impero tanker between a Royal Navy frigate and Iranian vessels shows the shortcomings of armed escorts in protecting traffic and underscores the risks of direct confrontation between the countries’ militaries.

In the recordings, obtained by the British maritime-security firm Dryad Global and posted on its Twitter account, the Iranian vessel can be heard telling the Stena Impero to change its course, saying: “If you obey, you will be safe.”

British Navy vessel HMS Montrose then intervenes and tells the U.K.-flagged tanker: “As you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered.”

The U.K. frigate then asks the Iranian vessel to confirm it is not “intending to violate international law,” but was unable to intervene.

“The HMS Montrose was close by, but it all happened very fast and once the ship entered Iranian waters, nothing could be done to prevent the seizure,” a person with direct knowledge of the incident said.

A U.S. destroyer, the USS Mason, was the closest American military vessel to the seizure, and was at eastern entrance of the Strait of Hormuz at the time, but didn’t become involved, U.S. officials said. The U.S. has said it didn’t receive a request for military assistance from the U.K.

Before the capture of the British-flagged tanker, Iran also downed a U.S. drone in June and harassed U.S. Navy vessels traversing the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday. The U.S. also accuses Iran of attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman, through which about a third of the world’s oil passes.

Tehran insists it doesn’t want a war and favors diplomacy, but it has paired prospects of talks with military pushback. In this way, Iran is maintaining a longstanding practice of responding forcefully to foreign pressure in a way that turns the tables on West, according to Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Provocations in the Gulf,” said Ms. Maloney, “help galvanize more effective European diplomacy by raising the costs.”

She added: “They remind Trump of his own domestic interests in avoiding either spikes in the price of oil or another costly, protracted U.S. military intervention in the Middle East as he begins his re-election campaign.”

At the same time, tensions between Tehran and Washington have raised risks of miscalculation, Iran experts say.

“An environment has been created that is ripe for inadvertent conflict that could easily engulf the entire region and spiral out of control,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group. “The reality is that maximum pressure has rendered Tehran more, not less, reckless.”

As a result, Tehran is responding to U.S. pressure with diplomatic overtures and military pushback.

The day before Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the British tanker, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in New York offering enhanced inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities in return for the U.S. permanently lifting sanctions.

In June, a Japanese tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iranian officials in Tehran to mediate the conflict with the U.S. Iran rejected U.S. accusations that it was behind the attack.

The U.S. has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy since President Trump withdrew unilaterally from the 2015 international nuclear deal last year to try curb what Washington says are Iran’s hostile actions in the Middle East.

Washington said its recent military buildup in the Persian Gulf, including an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force, intends to reassure allies of its commitment to securing the region.

The U.S. pressure has contributed to a combustible situation in the Middle East, partly because of how Tehran has interpreted it. In a speech in May, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that the U.S. was trying to compel Iran to sacrifice its strengths, such as its nuclear capabilities. He said Iran must counter force with force.

“If the other side has an instrument to exert pressure, he should use it. This is the only way,” Mr. Khamenei said. “If he uses that instrument, then he can stop the other side, or he can decrease or stop their pressures.”

The pressure has underpinned small-scale skirmishes that so far haven’t cost Iranian or American lives, despite Iran’s escalatory tactics.

The passage last week of the USS Boxer, a sea-to-land assault ship leading a group of three warships manned with 4,500 Marines, through the Strait of Hormuz, led to the downing of an Iranian drone, the U.S. said. Iran denied losing a drone.

After Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June, Mr. Trump approved but abruptly called off a U.S. military strike on key facilities inside Iran.

Another path for Iran to push back against the West has been to gradually breach certain limits set in the nuclear deal to compel in European countries into providing relief from U.S. sanctions. With such moves, and the seizure of the British-flagged Grace 1 tanker on July 19, Iran jeopardizes shifting international opinion firmly against it, but some analysts said that may no longer matter much to the Iranian leadership.

“European sympathy hasn’t produced tangible mitigation of American sanctions,” Ms. Maloney said. “There’s simply no serious basis for anticipating that the Europeans can appreciably offset the economic costs of the U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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