Iran says tanker crew safe, warns UK against rising tensions

Stena Impero's crew is in good health, authorities say as they seek access to 'evidence' for a probe into alleged crash.

    Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at Bander Abass port [Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency/AFP]
    Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at Bander Abass port [Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency/AFP]

    Iran has warned the United Kingdom against escalating tensions between the two countries in the wake of its seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker - an act the UK government has called "hostile".

    Britain has rejected Tehran's explanation that it seized the Stena Impero on Friday because it had been involved in an accident, and told its ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil passageway.

    The "UK government should contain those domestic political forces who want to escalate existing tension between Iran and the UK well beyond the issue of ships. This is quite dangerous and unwise at a sensitive time in the region," Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran's envoy to Britain, wrote on Twitter.

    "Iran, however, is firm and ready for different scenarios," he said.

    His comments came a day after Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, said Tehran's actions showed "worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour".

    Hunt - who is also seeking to become the next leader of Britain's Conservative party, and by default the country's prime minister - called the seizure 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 by British authorities in the Mediterranean two weeks ago on allegations of breaching UN sanctions against Syria.

    Iran, which says the seized tanker risked maritime safety and has opened an investigationremained defiant. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran's actions were taken to "uphold" international maritime rules.

    "The Revolutionary Guards responded to Britain's hijacking of the Iranian tanker," parliament speaker Ali Larijani told a parliament session aired live on state radio.

    Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jaabari, reporting from Tehran said the general feeling in the Iranian capital "is that the Iranians have carried out what they believe is their due diligence when it comes to securing the waters of the Strait of Hormuz."

    A picture taken on July 21, 2019, shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero as it's anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. - Iran warned
    Iran detained the oil tanker on allegations of failing to respond to distress calls and turning off its transponder after hitting a fishing boat [Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency/AFP] 

    Crew in good health

    The vessel was impounded with its 23 crew members on board at the port of Bandar Abbas after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized it in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday.

    The IRGC on Saturday released video footage showing a ship with the Stena Impero's markings being surrounded by speedboats before commandos descended down a rope from a helicopter onto the vessel.

    Iran detained the oil tanker on allegations of failing to respond to distress calls and turning 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.

    India, Latvia and the Philippines said they had approached Iran to seek the release of their nationals.

    Allah-Morad Afifipoor, director-general of the Hormozgan province port and maritime authority, told Iran's Press TV on Sunday that the entire crew of the Stena Impero oil tanker was in good health.

    "We are ready to meet their needs. But we have to carry out investigations with regards the vessel," he said.

    "The investigation depends on the cooperation by the crew members on the vessel, and also our access to the evidence required for us to look into the matter."

    Stena Bulk, the Sweden-based operator of the Stena Impero, says the tanker was in "full compliance with all navigation and international regulations".

    'Tit-for-tat'

    The seizure has heightened tension between Iran and Britain, which is party to Iran's 2015 multinational nuclear deal. The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on Saturday that London was planning to target Iran with sanctions in the aftermath of the tanker seizure.

    In a letter to the United Nations Security Council, Britain said the tanker was approached by Iranian forces in Omani territorial waters where it was exercising its lawful right of passage, and that the action "constitutes illegal interference."

    In a statement on Sunday, the Omani foreign ministry did not comment on the ship's position but called on Iran and Britain to use diplomacy to resolve the situation. 

    Oman, which maintains warm ties with Iran, said it was in contact with all parties to secure safe passage for ships through the vital Strait of Hormuz and urged Tehran to release the vessel.

    Germany and France have also called on Iran to release the Stena Impero as the European Union voiced concern.

    US-Iran friction

    Tensions in the Gulf have soared in recent weeks, with US President Donald Trump calling off air raids against Iran at the last minute in June after Iranian forces downed a US drone, and blaming Iran for a series of tanker attacks.

    The latest incidents also came as Trump and US officials insisted on Thursday, despite denials from Tehran, that the US military had downed an Iranian drone that was threatening a US naval vessel in the Strait of Hormuz.

    Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Tehran's archrival, said it would, once again, host US troops on its soil to boost regional security.

    Iran and the US have been at loggerheads since May 2018 when Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on it.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies