Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour – The Guardian July 19, 2019
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claimed on Friday evening to have seized a British oil tanker, the Stena Impero, which suddenly veered off course and headed into Iranian waters.
The ship’s owners issued a statement saying that at 3pm GMT (7pm local time), the ship had been “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.
“We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran,” the owners, Stena Bulk, and the ship’s managers, Northern Marine, said.
The seizure of the Stena Impero came on a day when the Gibraltar authorities announced their were extending their custody of the Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, suspected of shipping oil to Syria. Tehran denounced the detention of the Grace 1 as piracy carried out on orders from Washington. Iranian politicians have been calling for reprisals.
The Stena Impero, a 30,000 tonne British-flagged and Swedish-owned ship, had been heading for Saudi Arabia, when it abruptly left the international sea lanes through the strait of Hormuz and tracking data showed it heading north towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, where the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has a substantial base.
In London, there were reports that the government’s emergency response committee, Cobra, was being convened. The Ministry of Defence stressed it had ships in the area but could not provide any further details of what had happened.
Donald Trump, the US president, said on Friday evening that the US would talk to Britain about the seizure of the British tanker, Reuters reported.
“We are aware of reports that Iranian forces seized a British oil tanker,” the chief spokesman for the US national security council, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement. “This is the second time in just over a week the UK has been the target of escalatory violence by the Iranian regime.”
“The US will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran’s malign behaviour,” Marquis said.
Hours before the Stena Impero was diverted from its course, the authorities in Gibraltar had announced that their would continue to hold the Grace 1, the Iranian tanker seized by Britain’s Royal Marines on 4 July, on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria, in violation of an EU embargo.
On Friday, Tehran denied Trump’s claim that US forces had downed a Iranian drone over the Gulf. Iran’s top military spokesman said all drones had returned safely to base, but Trump was adamant.
“No doubt about it … we shot it down,” the US president said.
The latest drone incident was first revealed by Trump, who said that USS Boxer took defensive action after the unmanned vehicle came within 1,000 yards of the warship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.
“The drone was immediately destroyed,” Trump said, adding that unmanned aircraft had threatened the safety of the American ship and its crew. He called on other countries to condemn Iran and protect their own ships.
The prospect of negotiations that might defuse the standoff appeared more distant than ever on Friday as a senior US administration official dismissed a nuclear offer proposed the previous date by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, during a visit to New York. The official suggested the offer was not serious and called for “an actual decision maker” to enter talks to “end Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions”.