Iran and the West remain locked in a stalemate as the British and Iranian navies continue to hold oil tankers, each carrying the other’s flag. When the UK resisted Iranian demands to accede to a swap, Tehran responded with a familiar mix of threats and invitations to negotiate.
IRAN AND BRITAIN IN A HOLDING PATTERN
In the latest outcome of the ongoing trans-Atlantic campaign to challenge Iranian aspirations, Tehran and London each continue to hold one oil tanker seized from the other. Last week, Iranian President Rouhani implicitly offered to trade the Stena Impero, which the IRGC seized in the Strait of Hormuz, for the Grace 1, which the Royal Navy captured off the coast of Gibraltar. “Should [the British] be committed to international frameworks and give up their wrong actions, including what they did in Gibraltar, they will receive a proportional response from Iran,” Rouhani was quoted as saying.
The new British government swiftly rejected Tehran’s offer, citing a false equivalency. In an interview on the BBC Monday morning, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab ruled out an exchange of captured oil tankers with Iran, saying that London would not accept a “quid pro quo” to end the standoff. The Iranian tanker “was intercepted because it was in breach of sanctions and heading with oil to Syria. The [British] Stena Impero was unlawfully detained. So this isn’t about some kind of barter. This is about international law.”
TEHRAN RESPONDS WITH A MIXTURE OF THREATS AND NEGOTIATION
Following a well-trod pattern, Iranian officials have responded with a blend of pressure and offers of negotiation. Positioning himself as a conciliator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attempted to shift blame for the impasse onto the now-departed May government and seemingly offered the incoming Boris Johnson government a fresh start.
On July 23, Zarif tweeted, “The May government’s seizure of Iranian oil at the US’s behest is piracy, pure and simple. I congratulate my former counterpart, Boris Johnson, on becoming UK PM. Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters and we will protect them.” These followed on the heels of an earlier comment by Zarif to reporters that "It's important for Boris Johnson to understand that Iran does not seek confrontation." He added, “Starting a conflict is easy, ending it would be impossible.”
Even as Zarif signaled diplomatic outreach to Boris Johnson’s new government, other elements of the Iranian government opted to ramp up the pressure. These came in three forms: forging closer naval ties with Russia, tying the tanker impasse to the JCPOA, and further weakening Iran’s commitments under the 2015 nuclear accord.
The first form of Iranian pressure on the West was unveiled on Monday, when Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi announced that Iran and Russia had signed a memorandum of understanding, largely centering around the two countries' naval forces. He hailed the agreement as a milestone that "may be considered as a turning point in relations of Tehran in Moscow," and promised that "joint Russian-Iranian exercises in the Indian Ocean are expected to take place soon."
Tehran’s next bid was to abandon Rouhani’s offer of a tanker exchange and tie the fate of the Grace 1 to the 2015 nuclear accord. After emergency talks in Vienna on July 28, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made the first explicit link between the seized tankers and the nuclear deal: “Since Iran is entitled to export its oil according to the JCPOA, any impediment in the way of Iran’s export of oil is actually against the JCPOA.”
Most critically, Tehran has accelerated its campaign to divest itself of the restrictions imposed on its nuclear and missile programs by the JCPOA. On the nuclear front, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told Iranian lawmakers on July 28 that he was planning to reinitiate activity at the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor — a measure expliciutly prohibited by the 2015 nuclear accord — and that Tehran has so far enriched a total of 24,000 kilograms of uranium since 2015, far more than the 300 permitted by the JCPOA. Moreover, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Iran is planning to enter a third phase of reducing its JCPOA commitments in early September.