In late May, the shipping authorities in Panama de-registered Grace I, an oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil around the coast of Africa into the Mediterranean Sea. Having lost its Panamanian flag, the ship was then forced to carry an Iranian one.
The vessel’s de-registration sparked off a serious provocation. Off the coast of Gibraltar, British Royal Marines seized and impounded the ship. The British said that it was headed for Syria, which constituted a breach of European Union sanctions. Iran denied this.
Sanctions and diplomatic pressure on other countries that host Iranian ships have also increased lately. Two other Iranian ships, Bavand and Termeh, recently sat for weeks in Paranaguá, Brazil, when the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras refused to refuel them. This was another direct result of pressure from the United States.
The situation is a complex one. Iran imports US$2 billion of goods annually from Brazil, mainly corn, meat and soy. Iran’s ambassador to Brazil, Seyed Ali Saghaeyan, told Brazilian officials that if Petrobras continued to deny Iran fuel for its ships, then Iran would source its imports elsewhere. This caused Brazilian traders to pressure their government not to alienate Iran.
In the end, Brazilian Chief Justice Dias Toffoli ordered Petrobras to refuel the ships. The Supreme Court said the ships have a contract with a Brazilian firm, Eleva Química, which is not subject to US sanctions. The two ships, along with three others, Daryabar, Delruba and Ganj, have been carrying urea to Brazil before returning to Iran with corn.
Pressure from the United States has resulted in Panama removing its flag from 59 vessels that are linked to Iran or Syria. A ship without an international flag cannot buy insurance, which means that it has to take on a different flag almost instantly. The United States has also pressured countries such as Sierra Leone and Togo not to allow their flags to fly on vessels that are part of Iran’s oil export trade. Thanks to American pressure upon insurance companies, ships carrying an Iranian flag have great difficulties obtaining insurance.
Ships with Iranian flags are also on the radar of customs officials who have been asked to subject them to more rigorous scrutiny. This delays their journeys and raises the cost of transporting Iranian oil.
Last Friday, Tehran’s leading cleric Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami said Britain’s actions off the coast of Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, reminded Iran of Britain’s colonial history. Britain, he said, is a “cunning and colonial fox.” The chairman of Iran’s parliamentary National Security Committee, Mojtaba Zonnour, said the actions of Great Britain should be described as “bullying and piracy.”
In response to the seizure of Grace I, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) detained Stena Impero, an oil tanker flying under the British flag. The Iranians claimed the vessel was behaving erratically when it was boarded by Iranian Guard officials and later detained. Stena Impero and its crew of 23 were taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
The IRGC also boarded MV Mesdar, a British ship sailing under the Liberian flag. Iran said it intervened with MV Mesdar because it steered off course toward the Iranian coast. A few hours later, MV Mesdar was allowed to proceed.
Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations sent a letter to the UN authorities offering Iran’s view of the Stena Impero incident. The Iranians said the tanker collided with an Iranian fishing boat, seriously injuring some of the smaller vessel’s crew. Iranian authorities claim they radioed the Stena Impero, which ignored its warnings and sailed away from a course suggested by the Iranian authorities. Iran said it was conducting an investigation of the collision.
Stena Impero’s owners denied this narrative, as did the British government. The ship is owned by a Swedish-based firm, Stena Bulk. The Swedish government has opened a dialogue with Iran and others to ensure freedom of navigation in the strait.
Command and control
The British Royal Navy has lately begun to aggressively patrol the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman. HMS Montrose, a navy frigate, has been engaging IRGC vessels. The UK government has said that all British merchant ships will now be escorted by Royal Navy frigates, with other Royal Navy ships now on their way to the Persian Gulf to join HMS Montrose.
The United States is leading a process to create a naval force to patrol the Strait of Hormuz. The US has said it will send “command and control” ships to coordinate other nations’ naval escort vessels. As the Strait of Hormuz becomes ever-more militarized, it is likely that Britain will work in tandem with the US.
But the international coalition is not without cracks.
The Japanese, for instance, have said they will not participate in the US-led military operation. Even after Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had indicated that Japan would join the US, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan wanted to reduce tensions and to avoid inflaming the situation. Now, Abe says there should be a pause on military developments. He wants to settle the dispute with Iran. Others in Asia agree.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “The main responsibility for protecting the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is mainly with Iran and neighboring countries,” mainly Oman. Rouhani is also reported as saying that if other countries tried to create tension, “they will receive a proper response from Iran.”
Rouhani made this comment as his special envoy to France, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, met with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to insist that Iran would not allow any interventions that disturb operations in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian Brigadier-General Hossein Dehghan told al-Jazeera, “Any change in the status of the Strait of Hormuz will open the door to a dangerous confrontation.” Iran is clearly not prepared to back down over asserting its role in the vital, 21-nautical-mile-wide sea strait, through which passes around a fifth of the world’s oil. At a recent gathering of foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement in Caracas, Venezuela, it was made clear that most countries want to avoid seeing the flashpoint explode into open war.
Iran, which cannot afford to be hemmed in by international pressures or actions, is now being creative with its shipping. On June 3, according to Reuters, Hayan, an Iranian ship, left the port of Bandar Abbas for Karachi, Pakistan. Four days later, the ship’s name changed to Mehri II and it carried the flag of Samoa. A week later, Mehri II transferred its cargo to an unknown vessel. It then turned around and returned to Iran as Hayan.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.