Iran, UK both rule out oil tanker swap deal

Tehran says it will not release a British-flagged oil tanker it captured earlier this month in a possible barter with the UK, which is holding an Iranian vessel off the coast of Gibraltar.

al-monitor An Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat is seen near the Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, near the port of Bandar Abbas, Iran, July 21, 2019. Photo by Fars News Agency/WANA via REUTERS.

Jul 30, 2019

Iran's ambassador to the United Kingdom has signaled little progress toward a negotiated settlement to a standoff over captured oil tankers. "Impossible to advance a quid pro quo or barter exchange of detained UK and Iranian ships," Hamid Baeidinejad tweeted July 29.

Baeidinejad reaffirmed Tehran's official line that the UK detention of the Iranian vessel Grace 1 off Gibraltar was "illegal" while Iran's capture of the Stena Impero was a response to violations of "some key safety/security regulations" by the British-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic maritime pathway for 20% of global oil.

The ambassador's post appeared to have come in reaction to UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who earlier ruled out any exchange deal with the Iranian side. “There is no quid pro quo. Grace 1 was intercepted because it was in breach of sanctions and heading with oil to Syria,” Raab told BBC Radio on July 29.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke of a "proportionate response" from Tehran if London releases the Iranian tanker. The comment was widely interpreted as an exchange offer. Later, Kamal Kharrazi, a veteran diplomat and the director of Iran's Strategic Council for Foreign Relations, said that if Britain freed the Iranian vessel, Iran "would accelerate the due legal process" of releasing the British one.

The two similar positions seemed to have served as the basis for the stance taken by Britain's new top diplomat, who added that the UK-flagged vessel "was unlawfully detained. So this isn’t about some kind of barter. This is about international law." That argument is, nevertheless, being questioned from across the political spectrum in Iran. As seen in the case of the US drone shot down by Iranian forces over the Gulf of Oman on June 20, the vessel seizure has been rallying rival Iranian parties behind the flag.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which takes credit for the tanker capture, has been releasing multiple media files of the episode in the recent days. The latest footage bears what seems to be communication between IRGC forces and HMS Montrose, the UK warship that appears to be trying to shield the Stena Impero from being detained. "You are ordered to not interfere in my operation," an Iranian sailor is heard telling the UK Royal Navy frigate, urging it to stay away from "danger."

Vatan Emrooz, a hard-line daily advancing an explicit anti-West agenda, described the order as "the thunder of glory," adding that the UK seizure of the Iranian ship was "obvious adventurism" that appeared to appease the United States in "supererogation," or doing more than is required.

A triumphant voice in Persian announces in the same footage "the detention of the Stena Impero belonging to the UK, the old colonialist fox," using a derogatory moniker rooted in a traditional Iranian attitude that equates UK foreign policy with sheer deceitfulness. This has in recent days been reverberated across social media, where various cartoons have circulated depicting an aged Queen Elizabeth II being humiliated by Iranian forces.

With both sides digging in their heels, Tehran and London do not seem any closer to a compromise to end the tanker impasse. But as the two have expressed their political preference for diplomacy, there seems little chance they will enter a cycle of escalation where the already tense situation could spin out of control.

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