Iran and Britain appeared to signal Saturday that they are not seeking confrontation, a day after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a flashpoint in rising tensions between Tehran and the West.
Iran’s state news agency said it had seized the Stena Impero for an investigation after it had collided with an Iranian fishing boat — an explanation that avoided portraying the incident as a tit-for-tat move in the current tense climate.
In London, Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of Britain’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said military action to free the tanker would be “extremely unwise,” especially because the vessel was apparently taken to a well-protected port.
Tensions between Iran and the West had been rising since May, when the U.S. announced it was dispatching an aircraft carrier and additional troops to the Middle East, citing unspecified threats posed by Iran.
The ongoing showdown has caused jitters around the globe, with each maneuver bringing fear that any misunderstanding or misstep by either side could lead to war.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt initially said two ships were seized in the Strait of Hormuz, the second sailing under a Liberian flag.
The owner of the Liberian-flagged tanker later said the ship was briefly boarded by armed guards before being allowed to go.
On Saturday, Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA said the British tanker had collided with an Iranian fishing boat, causing damage, and didn’t respond to calls from the smaller craft.
The fishing boat informed Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization, which notified the powerful Revolutionary Guard. IRNA reported that the Revolutionary Guard vessels directed the Stena Impero to an Iranian port for an investigation Friday, and that the crew remained on board the ship as per safety regulations.
Stena Bulk, the owner of the tanker, said the vessel had 23 crew members of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationalities and there were no reports any of them were injured.
Britain has featured prominently in the recent tensions with Iran.
There was a brief standoff between the British navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels recently. The British navy said it warned three Guard vessels away after they tried to impede the passage of a commercial British tanker that the navy was escorting.
Britain’s Royal Marines assisted in the seizure of an Iranian oil supertanker on July 4 by Gibraltar, a British overseas territory off the southern coast of Spain.
Britain has said it would release the vessel if Iran could prove it was not breaching European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria. However, on Friday, a court in Gibraltar extended by 30 days the detention of the Panama-flagged Grace.
The current tensions have been escalating since Trump withdrew the U.S. last year from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Iran, including its oil exports.
The sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard.
Iran’s government has desperately tried to get out of the chokehold, urging the other partners in the nuclear deal, particularly European nations, to pressure the U.S. to lift the crippling sanctions.
Meanwhile, crude oil prices climbed following Iran’s announcement about the Stena Impero as traders worried the escalating tensions could affect crude supplies.
Maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz has deteriorated in recent weeks after six attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. has blamed on Iran — an allegation the Islamic Republic denies.
The U.S. has asked Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in past weeks to contribute financially and militarily to a Trump administration proposal called the Sentinel Program — a coalition of nations working with the U.S. to preserve maritime security in the Persian Gulf and keep eyes on Iran.
Late Friday, officials said the U.S. is sending several hundred troops as well as aircraft and air defense missiles to Saudi Arabia as part of its increased military presence in the region. The move has been in the works for many weeks and is not a response to Friday’s seizure by Iran of a British tanker.
King Salman approved hosting U.S. armed forces in the kingdom “to increase joint cooperation in defense and regional security and stability,” a statement in the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.