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UK veers off course in Iran tanker dispute

By Andrew England and David Bond 

Financial Times: The moment British commandos seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in a bold night-time raid, UK officials knew they were entering sensitive territory.

For more than a year, Britain had been co-operating with France and Germany to save the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump had abandoned and come up with measures to offset the crushing impact of US sanctions on the Islamic republic. But by impounding the Grace 1, the UK had mounted an operation that Tehran would deem a hostile act and interpret as a sign that Britain was aligning itself to the Trump administration’s “economic war” against Tehran.

The UK was aware of the risks of Iranian retaliation. Days after the Grace 1 was detained it raised its threat warning for British vessels passing through Iranian waters to “level 3” — the highest. But on Friday, Iranian special forces were shinnying down ropes from a helicopter to seize the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker and its 23-man crew in the Strait of Hormuz, the pinchpoint to the Gulf.

The result is that Britain has been thrust into the centre of Iran’s increasingly belligerent stand-off with the west and is grappling with a diplomatic crisis just as a new prime minister prepares to take office and lead the UK out of Europe. The fear among some British politicians is that the UK could be sucked ever closer to the US’s hawkish stance on Iran and, in a worst-case scenario, be dragged into a conflict.

“I’m extremely worried about elements in the United States seeking to draw us into actions about which we might have reservations,” said Alistair Burt, a Conservative MP and former Middle East minister. “Keeping Iran in that [nuclear] deal and working with European partners is in all of our interests. It’s disturbing, but it is possible that there would be some who would want to break into that and divide us.”

There have already been hints that the UK has tacked more towards the Trump administration’s position on Iran than Germany and France. Unlike the two other European signatories to the 2015 nuclear accord, Britain has publicly backed Washington’s claims that Iran was responsible for sabotage attacks on six vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May and June.

UK officials, however, insist the Grace 1’s seizure had nothing to do with the US’s punitive measures against Iran. They argue that Britain had no option when a vessel suspected of shipping oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions entered European territory.

But Spain muddied the waters by saying Britain acted on a US request. John Bolton, the hawkish US National Security Adviser, said at the time that the seizure of Grace 1 was “excellent news”.

UK government officials have said it is too simplistic to think the UK only decided to seize the Iranian oil tanker after a tip-off from the US. They added that the UK had relied on a range of intelligence before acting.

UK officials have also repeatedly said they want to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf. Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, who has been juggling the crisis with his bid to become prime minister, said on July 13 that the UK would facilitate the release of Grace 1 if “we received guarantees that it would not be going to Syria”.

But six days later, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the Stena Impero. Hours before the elite forces boarded the tanker, a court in Gibraltar ruled that the detention of Grace 1 could be extended by another 30 days.

With the UK drawn into a dangerous game of tit-for-tat, its attempt to delineate between its support for the nuclear deal, the impounding of the Grace 1 and its criticism of Iran’s regional behaviour has become ever more difficult.

“There was an underestimation about what the consequences of this would be and the inevitability of an Iranian reaction,” said Sir John Sawers, the former chief of MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence service. “This was bound to be seen in Iran as an action in support of US sanctions against Iran rather than in support of EU sanctions against Syria.”

Sir John added that the UK’s new government, likely to be led by Boris Johnson, will have a “very delicate task” of balancing the interests of European partners and Washington, especially with a “bumpy” Brexit likely to increase the UK’s reliance on the US.

“The priority now has to be to find a negotiated way out with both tankers being released,” Sir John said >>>