It was abundantly clear what Iran was up to in the Gulf in the days prior to it seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Straits of Hormuz on Friday. Iran had already sought to impede the movement of the British Heritage tanker, according to reports on July 11, issuing the warning after the UK seized an Iranian tanker allegedly transporting oil to Syria.
Let's go back to early May, when Iran-US tensions began to rise. The US warned that Iran or its proxies were threatening the US and US allies. American naval assets were dispatched to the Gulf, and war planes followed.
On May 12, four oil tankers were sabotaged off the UAE port of Fujairah. The next day, a drone – allegedly flown from Iraq and launched by pro-Iranian Shi'ite militias – attacked Saudi oil infrastructure. Then came rocket attacks near the US Embassy and near US military bases between May 19 and June 19. Two more oil tankers were also attacked on June 13. A US drone was shot down on June 20, and Washington came within a hair of ordering retaliatory airstrikes.
When the British decided to stop the Iranian tanker in Gibraltar, they understood that this would become part of the context of increasing tension between Iran, the US and allies of both countries. Iran plays a full court press. It not only ratchets up tensions in the Gulf or fighting diplomatically, it also seeks to play hard ball on the Iran Deal and nuclear issue, announcing on July 7 that it would raise uranium enrichment beyond limits set in the 2015 deal.
The UK initially appeared to understand this calculation after Royal Marines were sent aboard the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 on July 4 off Gibraltar. So on July 11, three Iranian fast boats piloted by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) harassed a British tanker transiting the Straits of Hormuz. The British warship HMS Montrose was on the scene to observe them and warn them off. But the brazen harassment was Iran's way of making it clear that they would continue to try to interdict British shipping. On Friday, Gibraltar said it would hold the tanker another month. The same day the US said it shot down an Iranian drone that was harassing the USS Boxer, a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz.
We now know that a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, was also boarded by the IRGC under the pretense that it wasn't complying with naval regulations. The Montrose was too far away to render assistance. The UK government held an emergency meeting of its Cobra, or high-level security meeting when issues of national importance must be addressed. But by then it was too late because Iran had what it wanted, which is leverage to bargain with the UK and make London look incapable of defending its ships. This is an important message for Tehran to send to a major Western power, especially one that historically prided itself on its naval power. Iran is posing as a global power that can do as it wants in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway.
The incident also comes as footage shows the Montrose trying to protect the British Heritage tanker a week ago. Also, Iran chose to board the tanker with a helicopter, which appears to be a way to show that Iran can do as it pleases and that it is as able to conduct daring maritime raids like the Royal Marines.
The Stena Impero is now at the port of Bandar Abbas. Iran has said the UK conducted "piracy" in Gibraltar, and that Iran is just following the rules. Iran wants to embarrass the UK through releasing footage of the raid on its media. The UK now says it wants to "de-escalate" the crisis even as it condemns Iran, while admitting that this is a "tit-for-tat situation."
This now reads like the typical Iran-West story, where Iran blusters and threatens and the Western powers end up begging Iran to end the standoff while everyone pretends they saved face, but clearly Iran looks like it came off better.
Western warships are on the defensive, waiting for Iran's next move.
But the larger story is two-fold. Iran wants to show it can continue to do as it pleases in the Gulf, and since May it has done mostly what it wants. Western warships tend to be on the defensive, waiting for Iran's next move. They don't harass Iranian shipping. They only down drones or warn IRGC fast-boats when the boats are nearby. Iran chooses the time and place.
Iran would say that it is the Western powers that shouldn't have warships a few kilometers from Iranian waters. Iran would also say that it is the US that upped sanctions last year, having left the Iran Deal and calling the IRGC a terrorist organization. It blames the UK for seizing its tanker.
Iran's narrative tends to play well in media, and also to Western audiences that are wary of a conflict. Iran knows this. As such, it would have behooved Western powers to not get into a situation that they aren't willing to follow-through.
The UK appears unable to protect its ships while the US continues to scramble to secure the shipping lanes.
For instance, the US made threats to retaliate but then appeared to climb down in May and June. The UK appears unable to protect its ships while the US continues to scramble to secure the shipping lanes. This is an unenviable position for the powerful Western countries to be in, continually appearing to be outplayed on the chessboard of brinkmanship by the Iranian grand-master. But it is precisely this game that Iran plays well, combining diplomacy and military affairs in a Clausewitz strategy of warfare by other means.
When even that fails, Iran uses its proxies and allies such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen or groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to threaten where it pleases. Now the ball appears in London's court as to what it will do about this tanker. Given the reticence to increase tensions, options for the UK are limited.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.