Iran said Sunday the fate of a British-flagged tanker it is refusing to hand back after seizing it in the Gulf depends on the cooperation of its crew with an investigation.
The Stena Impero was impounded with its 23 crew members aboard at the port of Bandar Abbas after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized it Friday in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Video footage released by the Guards on Saturday showed a ship with the oil tanker’s markings being surrounded by speedboats before troops in balaclavas descend down a rope from a helicopter onto the vessel.
A recording of radio exchanges involving the Iranian forces, the tanker crew and a British navy frigate emerged on Sunday, in reports confirmed by Britain’s defence ministry.
Iran detained the ship on allegations it failed to respond to distress calls and turned off its transponder after hitting a fishing boat.
Its crew is made up of 18 Indians, including the captain, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino.
‘All of them are in full health, they are on the vessel... anchored in a safe place,’ said Allah-Morad Afifipoor, director-general of the Hormozgan province port and maritime authority.
‘The investigation depends on the cooperation by the crew members on the vessel,’ he told Press TV.
Britain summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires on Saturday and urged his country to de-escalate tensions and release the tanker.
Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani hit out at the British, saying they ‘stole and got a response’ from the Guards, according to ISNA news agency.
He was referring to the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British authorities in the Mediterranean two weeks ago.
Iran has opened an investigation into the Stena Impero after the alleged collision.
The fishermen had issued a distress call and contacted the port authority when it went unanswered, said Afifipoor, quoted by Fars news agency.
India, Latvia and the Philippines said they had approached Iran to seek the release of their nationals.
The Stena Impero’s owner said it was in ‘international waters’ when it was ‘attacked by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter’.
Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since May 2018 when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark 2015 deal putting curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Tensions in the Gulf have escalated since May this year, when the US boosted its military presence in the region in response to ‘indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces’.
The US administration reimposed tough sanctions on Iran, which retaliated by increasing its enrichment of uranium beyond limits set in the nuclear accord.
Trump called off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic downed a US drone, one of a string of incidents including attacks on tankers in the Gulf.
Germany and France urged Iran to release the Stena Impero as the European Union voiced concern.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the seizure showed ‘worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour’.
Hunt called it a ‘tit-for-tat’ situation, as it came hours after a court in Gibraltar said it would extend by 30 days the detention of the Grace 1 Iranian tanker seized two weeks ago on allegations of breaching UN sanctions against Syria.
London warned its ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for about a third of the world’s sea-borne oil.
On Sunday junior defence minister Tobias Ellwood told Sky News that Britain was ‘going to be looking at a series of options’ in response to the tanker seizure. He did not elaborate.
Trump said Friday’s incident ‘only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble. Nothing but trouble.’
But Iran has remained defiant.
Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton ‘is turning his venom against the UK in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire’.
Oman, which maintains strong ties with Iran, on Sunday joined calls for it to release the Stena Impero while urging London and Tehran to resolve the dispute.
In a separate development, Iran said one of its tankers held in its regional rival Saudi Arabia since being forced to seek repairs in the kingdom is returning home.
The Happiness 1 ‘has been released following negotiations and is now moving toward Persian Gulf waters,’ said transport minister Mohammad Eslami, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
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