Delhi, Manila call to free crew - US, Iran at odds over drone - Iran crewman sent to Oman

TEHRAN: Iran ignored mounting European appeals to release a British-flagged tanker yesterday as Britain denounced a “dangerous move” and summoned a senior diplomat from the Islamic republic. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it seized the Stena Impero on Friday for breaking “international maritime rules” in the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for around a third of the world’s sea-borne oil.

The tanker was impounded off Bandar Abbas port for allegedly failing to respond to distress calls and turning off its transponder after colliding with a fishing vessel, authorities said, adding an investigation had been launched. It was one of two ships Britain said Iran seized in the Gulf, but the UK owner of the Liberian-flagged Mesdar said it had been later released after being boarded by armed personnel.

That came hours after a court in Gibraltar said it would extend by 30 days the detention of an Iranian tanker seized by British authorities two weeks ago on allegations of breaching EU sanctions against Syria. The Guards said on Thursday they also seized another “foreign tanker” and its crew a few days earlier for allegedly smuggling fuel, without giving further details.

In London, the Foreign Office said it had summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires yesterday. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the seizure of the ship showed “worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilizing behavior”. His government, which met twice for emergency sessions Friday, advised British ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz for “an interim period”.

Germany and France urged Iran to release the tanker, whose seizure Berlin called a “dangerous further aggravation of an already tense situation”. US President Donald Trump said Friday’s incident “only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble. Nothing but trouble.” But Iran remained defiant. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran’s “action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold” international maritime rules. “It is IRAN that guarantees the security of the Persian Gulf & the Strait of Hormuz. UK must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US,” he tweeted.

Hunt said he had expressed extreme disappointment by phone to Zarif. Zarif told Hunt that the ship must go through a legal process before it could be released, Iran’s INSA news agency reported. A spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier-General Ramezan Sharif, said Tehran had seized the ship in the Strait of Hormuz despite the “resistance and interference” of a British warship which had been escorting it.

Tensions in the Gulf have soared since May, with Trump calling off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic downed a US drone. The United States has also blamed Iran for multiple attacks on tankers in the Gulf. Iran said it had opened an investigation yesterday into the newly-seized oil tanker. The Swedish-owned ship “has 23 crew and they are all on the ship,” said Allah-Morad Afifipoor, director-general of the Hormozgan province port and maritime authority. The Philippines said 18 Indians, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino were aboard. Both Manila and New Delhi said they were in touch with Tehran to seek the release of their nationals.

Raveesh Kumar, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, told AFP that 18 of its nationals were on the ship and said New Delhi was “in touch with the government of Iran to secure (their) early release and repatriation”. “(Philippine) Ambassador to Iran Fred Santos is contacting Iranian authorities to seek assurance that the Filipino seafarer is safe and will be released soon,” it said, adding the unidentified crewmember’s family has been notified.

In Riga, the Latvian foreign ministry said it was “doing everything we can to make our citizen free”. It said Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics was in touch with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and British Foreign Secretary Hunt “to ensure close coordination in our attempts to make free our fellow people”.

The fishermen had issued a distress call after the collision and contacted the port authority when they “didn’t receive any response”, said Afifipoor, quoted by Fars news agency. The Stena Impero’s owner said it was in “international waters” when it was “attacked by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter”. Hunt warned that “if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences”. But he told Sky News that “we’re not looking at military options, we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation.”

The incident came as Trump and American officials insisted, despite denials from Tehran, that the US military had downed an Iranian drone alleged to have been threatening amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. The Revolutionary Guard released footage it said disproved the US claims. The seven-minute video, apparently shot from high altitude, shows a convoy of ships the Guards said they were tracking as they passed through the strait. The vessels could not be immediately identified, although one resembles the Boxer.

Trump, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, warned Iran against doing anything “foolish”, saying it would pay a heavy price if it did so. “No doubt about it, no - we shot it down,” Trump said at a White House event honoring the Apollo 11 astronauts. Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton added: “There is no question that this was an Iranian drone.”

The president was asked if he was concerned about the potential for a clash with Iran. “Not at all,” he said. “We have the greatest ships, the most deadly ships, we don’t want to have to use them, but they’re the most deadly ships ever conceived. And we hope for their sake they don’t do anything foolish. If they do, they will pay a price like nobody’s ever paid a price,” Trump said.

“All of (Iran’s) drones… have safely returned to their bases,” said armed forces spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi. “There have been no reports of a confrontation with the American USS Boxer,” he said, quoted by Tasnim news agency. Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi tweeted that the USS Boxer may have shot down a US drone by mistake.

As tensions soared, Iran’s archrival Saudi Arabia said it would once again host US troops to boost regional security. The Pentagon said the deployment “ensures our ability to defend our forces and interests in the region from emergent, credible threats”. The US military also said its patrol aircraft were monitoring the Strait, and announced a “multinational maritime effort” to ensure freedom of navigation in key waterways.
“Based on mutual cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America, and their desire to enhance everything that could preserve the security of the region and its stability… King Salman gave his approval to host American forces,” a ministry spokesman was quoted by Saudi state news agency SPA as saying. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deployment would include about 500 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, and is part of a boost in the number of US troops in the Middle East that the Pentagon announced last month.

Saudi Arabia has not hosted US forces since 2003 when they withdrew following the end of the war with Iraq. The US presence in Saudi Arabia lasted 12 years, starting with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. As many as 200 US aircraft were stationed at the Prince Sultan air base situated around 80 km south of the capital at the peak of the Iraq war, and as many as 2,700 missions a day were handled by the headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

Separately, Saudi Arabia said yesterday it had sent a crewmember of an Iranian ship who was previously evacuated for medical reasons from a vessel off the Yemeni port of Hodeida, to Oman. Saudi Arabia in June said it had evacuated a crewmember for medical reasons from a “suspect” Iranian ship northwest of Hodeida after receiving a request for help from Tehran. The Iranian had now been sent to Oman at Tehran’s request after receiving the necessary medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, a source in Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry was quoted as saying by state news agency SPA.

“The ministry received a request from the Iranian foreign ministry through the Swiss embassy in Riyadh to transfer (the crew member) to the Sultanate of Oman after his health improved,” the Saudi foreign ministry source was quoted as saying by SPA. Oman traditionally seeks to play a conciliatory role in the turbulent region. The crew member had been airlifted from the Iranian vessel Savis to a military hospital in the Saudi city of Jizan, which borders Yemen, after being seriously injured on board the ship. - Agencies