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Tit-for-tat ship seizures raise tensions

Jul 24,2019 - Last updated at Jul 24,2019

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement that Britain must look after its own shipping in the Gulf is both outrageous and amazing.  His words are outrageous because the US put British shipping in the Gulf at risk by asking Britain to seize Grace 1, a super-tanker with a cargo of Iranian oil, as it entered the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Britain fell into a trap, it is said, laid by Donald Trump's hawkish national security adviser John Bolton. 

The US had tracked the vessel as it sailed from an Iranian port around Africa until, on July 4, it arrived off the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. 

Britain obliged the Trump regime by ordering Royal Marines to board and seize the ship under Gibraltar's jurisdiction. 

Britain then agreed to release the tanker if Tehran gave assurances that the crude oil would not be delivered to the Syrian refinery at Banias in violation of European Union (EU) sanctions.  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed  Javad Zarif called the tanker snatch "piracy" and said the tanker was not bound for Syria but elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. He did not reveal where as US sanctions all countries buying Iranian oil. While discussions were taking place between the British and Gibraltarian authorities, Gibraltar's supreme court renewed the detention of Grace 1 for 30 days.

The Iranians responded promptly by halting two British-connected ships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the world's oil flows. The first was the British-flagged Stena Impero, which remains in Iranian custody, and the second, the Liberian-registered, Glasglow-based Mesdar which was briefly held and freed. 

It is amazing that Britain did not predict the consequences of its seizure of Grace 1, the only such action against tankers carrying Iranian oil since Trump  pulled out of the 2015 agreement providing for Iranian dismantlement of its nuclear programme in exchange for international and European sanctions relief. British commentators suggest that the outgoing British government is preoccupied with the Conservative Party's election of a new prime minister and Britain's exit from the EU. This is no excuse. 

Nevertheless, France and Germany instantly backed Britain in the tanker-snatch stakes.  This was another miscalculation because all three, Britain, France and Germany, have ruled out themselves as EU mediators between Washington and  Tehran. The only sensible thing they have done so far is to refuse to join a US-proposed coalition to protect Gulf shipping. Instead they seek to mount an EU effort.

Frustrated over Trump's refusal, so far, to take military action against Iran for allegedly sabotaging ships in the Gulf, Bolton is determined to push Britain and, possibly, France and Germany to pull out of the nuclear deal. Their withdrawal would bolster the Trump regime's demand that Iran must re-negotiate the deal and abandon its regional allies: Syria's government, Iraq's Shiite militias, Lebanon's Hizbollah, and the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Although he is the man responsible for the competitive tanker-snatches and rising tensions in the Gulf, Donald Trump has said: "This only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran: trouble, nothing but trouble." 

There would have been no build-up of US-driven tensions, US warships, and US troops in the Gulf region, if Trump had refrained from withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear accord which still has backing from the other five signatories: Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as the European Union. Supporters argue he had no right to pull out of the deal as it is a multinational accord which had been endorsed by the UN Security Council. 

The deal was negotiated over a dozen years and concluded during the previous administration. It counted as former President Barack Obama's major foreign policy triumph.  

During his election campaign and his occupation of the White House, Trump repeatedly denounced the deal and swore to tear it up. This is exactly what he has done and, in flagrant violation of Article 26 of the deal, re-imposed sanctions and introduced new sanctions on Tehran. This not only denies Iran the benefits of the deal but also amounts to waging economic warfare on Iran by shrinking its oil export 80 per cent of state revenues, by 90 per cent. 

US sanctions target Iran's non-oil exports as well and prevent the country from importing food, medicines, medical equipment, spare parts for commercial aircraft and civilian vehicles. Since Trump harms Iranian civilians and denies them necessities, the sanctions regime amounts to war crime in international law.            

Trump took this extremely destructive action, in part, because he sought to deny Obama his chief foreign policy success. It is significant that Trump waited for more than a year in office to take this step.  During this time he was advised not to withdraw by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former defence secretary James Mattis. While neither one of them were fans of Iran, they tried to constrain Trump's worst ideas and impulses.  When they left, he was free to do whatever he wanted.   

It is significant that Trump went ahead with his plan to withdraw after April 2018 when Mike Pompeo became secretary of state and Bolton national security adviser.  Pompeo is an evangelical Christian Zionist and Bolton a pro-Israeli hawk left over from both Bush administrations. Trump is also strongly influenced by his old friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahyu who has been trying to drag the US into a war with Iran for years.    

Having made a mess, Trump has tried to de-escalate by offering to negotiate with Iran “without preconditions”. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has said it is up to the US to ease tensions by lifting sanctions. Once Iran begins receiving the rewards it expected from the nuclear deal, he suggested Tehran might agree to long-term intrusive international inspections of its nuclear facilities under the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  

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