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World Britain sends destroyer to Persian Gulf as Iran demands release of seized supertanker

Supertanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar, on July 6, 2019. Tehran demanded the British navy release the Iranian oil tanker seized last week.

JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

Iran on Friday demanded the British navy release an Iranian oil tanker seized last week off Gibraltar, accusing the United Kingdom of playing a “dangerous game” and threatening retribution, while London announced it was sending a destroyer to the Persian Gulf.

The comments from Iran’s Foreign Ministry came the day after police in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory on the southern tip of Spain, said they arrested the captain and chief officer of the supertanker suspected of breaching European Union sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told Iranian state news agency IRNA that “the legal pretexts for the capture are not valid … the release of the tanker is in all countries’ interest.”

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“This is a dangerous game and has consequences,” Mr. Mousavi warned.

During Friday prayers, Kazem Sedighi, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened retribution. “Rest assured, Britons will soon feel the slap of the powerful hands of the Islamic Republic,” he said.

The British navy said Thursday it had stopped three Iranian paramilitary vessels from disrupting the passage of a British oil tanker through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical shipping lane at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard denied any incident had occurred in the strait.

That brief but tense standoff is believed to have stemmed from the British seizure of the Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4.

On Friday, the British Ministry of Defence said it was moving up its timetable for relieve the HMS Montrose, a frigate operating in the Persian Gulf, with the larger HMS Duncan destroyer in the wake of the recent developments.

“This will ensure that the U.K. alongside international partners can continue to support freedom of navigation for vessels transiting through this vital shipping lane.”

The Iranian tanker intercepted last week was carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil, the head of Gibraltar’s government said Friday.

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A senior Spanish official had previously said the interception was carried out at the request of the United States, but Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, told Parliament no other government had asked the territory to act.

“These important decisions about breaches of our laws were certainly not decisions taken at the political behest or instruction of any other state or of any third party,” he said.

Mr. Picardo added that the ship is suspected of breaching European Union sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and that any country with a claim to the vessel and its cargo can file a claim in court.

Iran has warned of consequences if Britain does not release an oil tanker seized off the coast of Gibraltar a week ago. In Tehran, some residents are backing such a retaliation. Reuters

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif scoffed at the accusation Iran was violating sanctions, which he said “are meant ”to stop Europe from buying Syria’s oil, they are not about another country selling oil to Syria.“

Mr. Zarif spoke in an interview Thursday with the pro-Iran Lebanese satellite news channel Al-Mayadeen.

“This is a very childish and ridiculous excuse by the British,” he said “They should officially announce that we are servants of America and act on behalf of America. America has returned their favour well by insulting their ambassador and their Prime Minister.”

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The tanker’s interception has stoked already high tensions in the region, as the Trump administration continues its campaign of maximum pressure on Iran.

The United States has sent thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Middle East, and fears are growing of a wider conflict after mysterious oil tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz blamed on Iran, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone.

Iran has recently begun surpassing uranium enrichment limits set in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the accord a year ago. The U.S. has also reimposed tough sanctions on Tehran’s oil exports, exacerbating an economic crisis that has sent its currency plummeting.

Iran has said its breaches of the nuclear pact can be reversed if the other parties to the agreement – Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and the European Union – can come up with enough economic incentives to effectively offset the American sanctions.

China on Friday reiterated it opposes unilateral sanctions against Iran and criticized what it described as the “long-arm jurisdiction” of the United States.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said that international trade with Iran “within the framework of international law is reasonable and legitimate and deserves to be respected and protected. We will resolutely defend our legitimate and lawful rights and interests,” the spokesman added.

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