The rift between the United States and Iran continues to escalate, as Tehran refuses to return to the nuclear stockpile threshold set in the 2016 Iranian nuclear agreement. Whereas fallout from the diplomatic breakdown had previously been limited to a minor altercation over a US unmanned drone, European powers are now caught in the crossfire, after Iranian vessels attempted to intercept a British oil tanker.
Last week, British authorities seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. It was bound for Syria, a violation of European Union sanctions against the Syrian government, a detail which Tehran denies.
“It is better for the British government to release this ship as soon as possible otherwise there will be consequences,” said Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister. Zarif argued that even if its tanker was destined for Syria, Iran is not bound to EU laws and sanctions, particularly those levied on the Middle Eastern state. Iran is not a member of the EU, and the sanction is not backed by the United Nations. He went on to accuse the UK government of engaging in piracy, and setting a dangerous precedent.
Reports that Iran would retaliate against UK tankers turned out to be true, according to reports from the British Royal Navy. Although Zarif issued a denial on the semi-official Fars news outlet, the Royal Navy account of the incident painted a different picture. According to it, Iranian-flagged ships tried to prevent the oil tanker Heritage from exiting the Strait of Hormuz. The confrontation ended with the HMS Montrose, which was already escorting the Heritage, came to its defence by cutting in between the vessel and its attackers. Following a verbal warning, the Iranian ships stood down.
Oil prices after the altercation rose to a seven-week high, spiking at over $60 per barrel. The Strait of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf is the most critical shipping channel in the world. With any inkling of trouble in the region, oil prices tend to increase. While six other tankers have been attacked since April, this is the first time a credible source such as the Royal Navy has confirmed that Tehran was behind the incident. European leaders are increasingly finding themselves stuck in between Tehran and Washington with a near complete lack of action either helping Iran or deterring it.
While the EU did recently launch the INSTEX program designed to facilitate trade with Iran, none of the products currently on the system are sanctioned, thereby reducing its effectiveness. Tehrani officials have long called on European leaders to give it some relief as US sanctions continue to suffocate its economy. Oil exports have plummeted from 2.5 million barrels per day in April 2018 to 300,000 now. When companies actually do purchase Iranian oil and petrochemical products, they do so at great risk of incurring wrath from the Trump administration, leading them to sometimes take extraordinary measures to conceal their business operations.
Iran had already broken the 300-kilogram barrier set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at the beginning of July. Now, it has been confirmed that Tehran has begun enriching uranium beyond the 3.67-percent limit. At an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, world leaders discussed how to handle the latest breach of the agreement while the US threatened more sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined in against Iran by posing in front of an F-35 fighter jet and threatening military action. So far, nothing of substance has come from the emergency meeting except more often-repeated phrases and vague threats.
As a condition of the JCPOA, signatories to the deal can roll it back in stages, opting to restore international sanctions against Iran. For now, that does not seem likely, but it is noteworthy how European leaders continue to pressure Iran to return to upholding its end of the accord without pressing the United States to do the same. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May have all issued statements demanding that Tehran return to compliance. Chinese and Russian diplomats, however, have tended to side more with Iran, pointing out that it was in full compliance until the US withdrew from the deal and restored American sanctions.
Iran continued to insist that European powers must provide economic relief in order for it to consider returning to the nuclear limits of the deal. Occurrences like the attack on the British tanker will not help win over world leaders. Regardless of whether or not the provocation was a warranted response after the Iranian ship was seized in Gibraltar, Iran’s reaction, in addition to the mysterious tanker attacks in April and May, give more credence to the arguments of the US and Israel. Justified or not, any action taken by Tehran will be viewed in a much harsher light than attacks against it, whether that involves seizing a transport ship or sanctioning exports.
It is time for European leaders to take a stand against the Trump administration and solidify the JCPOA which had achieved positive, measurable results. It was time last year, but it is still time now. However, with every escalation of the situation, that time runs out.