TEHERAN/DUBAI – Iran called on the United States on Friday to immediately release an oil tanker that British Royal Marines seized last week on suspicion it was breaking European sanctions by taking oil to Syria, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman told state news agency IRNA.
“This is a dangerous game and has consequences, … the legal pretexts for the capture are not valid, … the release of the tanker is in all countries’ interest,” spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
Iran has warned of reciprocal measures if the tanker is not released.
Britain said on Thursday that three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz, which controls the flow of Middle East oil to the world, but backed off when confronted by a Royal Navy warship.
Iran denied that its vessels had done any such thing.
Tension between Iran and the West has increased a week after Britain seized the tanker Grace 1 and London said the British Heritage, operated by oil company BP, had been approached in the strait between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula.
Mousavi accused Britain of seizing the tanker under US pressure. “Such illegal measures could increase tensions in the Persian Gulf,” he told IRNA.
For decades, Shiite-led Iran and its US-backed Sunni Gulf Arab rivals have been locked in proxy battles for predominance in the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen.
Britain is among European parties to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, which US President Donald Trump pulled out of it last year, reimposing sanctions on Teheran.
Washington tightened sanctions from the start of May, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.
In retaliation to Washington’s mounting pressure, Iran has decreased its commitments to the nuclear pact, in defiance of a warning by European countries.
The United States blames Teheran for a series of attacks on shipping in the world’s most important oil artery since mid-May, accusations that Teheran rejects.
The capture of the Iranian tanker also came at a time of sharply increased US-Iranian confrontation in recent weeks. Washington has also dispatched extra troops to the region to counter what it describes as Iranian threats.
“Foreign powers should leave the region because Iran and other regional countries are capable of securing regional security,” Mousavi said.
“Iran has repeatedly expressed its readiness to hold talks with its neighbors to resolve disputes.”
On Thursday, the Pentagon said it was discussing military escorts for vessels in the Persian Gulf region.
The White House’s nominee to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said Washington was attempting to put together a coalition “in terms of providing military escort, naval escort to commercial shipping”, he said.
“I think that will be developing over the next couple weeks,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee, after London accused Teheran on Thursday of deploying three military vessels to “impede the passage” of a 274-meter BP tanker, the British Heritage.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards denied involvement but also warned both the US and Britain that they would “strongly regret” the British detention of a fully-loaded Iranian tanker off Gibraltar last week for allegedly violating sanctions on Iran.
Officials in Britain and France would not confirm the discussions on a tanker escort operation, which comes amid heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf region.
The US, Britain and France all maintain a naval presence in the Gulf.
Britain said on Friday that it would deploy the destroyer HMS Duncan warship to the Persian Gulf region to replace HMS Montrose, maintaining a continuous presence there.
But in France, a government official said that they were not planning for the moment to expand their presence in the Gulf.
“France is on a course of de-escalation,” the official said.
“Sending additional military assets to the region does not seem useful to us.”