British officials are drawing up plans to target Iran with sanctions for its seizing of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait off Hormuz, and it may urge European Union countries to reimpose sanctions that were lifted in 2016 as part of Tehran's agreement to curb its nuclear program.
The British government is under strong pressure from lawmakers to act decisively in the sharply escalating diplomatic quarrel between the two countries, but there's growing domestic criticism in the House of Commons about the lack of naval protection for British tankers in the Strait.
The outgoing British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is being blamed by some parliamentarians and military officials for failing to agree to a system of joint naval patrols the U.S. was urging Britain and other European navies to establish with American forces. Downing Street took the view that if Britain joined an American-proposed "coalition off navies" it would be seen as endorsing President Donald Trump's hard-line, sanctions-led approach to Iran, say British and U.S. officials.
British defense minister Tobias Ellwood told British broadcasters Sunday that Downing Street is is looking at imposing sanctions against Iran over the seizing of the British-flagged and Swedish-owned Stena Impero and its 23-strong crew. Sanctions could include the freezing of Iranian asset. Asked about sanctions, Ellwood said: "We are going to be looking at a series of options."
On Sunday, too, new audio recordings were released of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Royal Navy both giving instructions to to the Britain-flagged tanker, with the Iranians ordering the vessel's captain to change course. One Iranian officer can be heard saying, "If you obey, you will be safe."
A British officer from the frigate HMS Montrose can be heard saying, "This is British warship F236. I reiterate, that as you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered."
HMS Montrose was an hour away from the tanker as it was being swarmed by agile, high-speed Iranian small boats and a helicopter.
Later the British officer can be heard demanding from the Iranians in a dueling conversation to "please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the MV Stena."
The British-registered ship's crew is made up of Indian, Latvian, Filipino and Russian members.
As reports emerged in London of likely British retaliation, the Iranian ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeidinejad, took to Twitter to warn the British not to escalate the quarrel.
The European Union has warned the seizing of the British-flagged tanker "brings risks of further escalation." But some European officials are critical of the British for the impounding of an Iranian tanker loaded with oil destined for Syria in the waters off Gibraltar earlier this month, saying while it was a legal seizure, it wasn't "politically smart."
Iran suggested the seizing of the Stena Impero was in retaliation for Britain's detaining of the Iranian-owned Grace 1 tanker - despite initially claiming the British-flagged vessel was diverted and seized because it collided with an Iranian fishing boat. A spokesperson for Iran's Guardian Council said "the rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law."
Iranian officials appeared to be trying Sunday to exploit divisions between the EU and Britain over the Gibraltar incident. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, again reiterated Tehran's contention that the U.S. had pushed Britain into a confrontation with Iran, blaming mainly U.S. national security adviser John Bolton.
As British officials consider their next moves, a former head of the Royal Navy, Lord West, blasted Theresa May's government, for failing to protect British tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.
Writing in Britain's Observer newspaper, he said the government should have done much more to protect British ships, arguing that those responsible were distracted by the race between Boris Johnson and the current British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt to succeed May as prime minister. That race concludes Tuesday, with Johnson seen as the probable victor.
Lord West urged the new prime minister to ignore Brexit and focus fully on the crisis or risk a descent into war.
On Saturday, Hunt, the foreign secretary, said he'd spoken to his Iranian counterpart, to express "extreme disappointment" over Iran's actions. Hunt said the tanker had been seized in Omani waters in "clear contravention of international law", and denounced the tanker's detention as "totally and utterly unacceptable."
There is growing concern in London, too, about whether Johnson is up to the task of handling the rapidly escalating crisis. A former British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said it was a dangerous moment: "This is a critical test for the new prime minister which will put him and his team on their mettle."
Alistair Burt, another former foreign office minister, says Johnson would already have had enough major problems to contend with, including Brexit, without the confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz. But now he will have "a fully formed international crisis sitting in the in-tray marked Iran."
Johnson was strongly criticized for his handling when foreign secretary of the Iranian imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman and media worker for Reuters, who Iran detained, accusing her of spying. Her family say Johnson worsened her plight by misspeaking by saying she was in Iran working as a journalist, when in fact she was in the country to visit family.