The tanker was captured at a time when the United Kingdom remains without a clear leader. The next prime minister will be announced on Tuesday, and whoever assumes the job will find himself in an extremely volatile situation.
The seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker by Iran in a major escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf will mean a busy first week for the nation’s new leader, as well as a test to his diplomatic skills (or lack thereof), former officials and observers warn.
Admiral Lord West, the former chief of the Royal Navy, has criticised the government for its failure to protect British-operated vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz and argued that the leadership contest had been a major distraction from the situation in the Persian Gulf.
“This crisis has developed as the eyes of our political establishment have been focused on the election of a new prime minister,” West wrote in an opinion piece in the Observer.
“Whoever wins is going to have to face a major international crisis as soon as he is in post. It cannot be ignored because of Brexit,” he added.
“There are very real risks of a miscalculation or foolhardy action leading to war.”
Alistair Burt, a former minister of state for the Middle East, said that the Iran crisis would be “an early test of diplomatic dexterity” for the next prime minister.
He insisted that the new incumbent must become an expert in the region, if he is not one already.
Former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett told the Guardian: “This is a critical test for the new prime minister which will put him and his team on their mettle.”
On Friday night, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps impounded a UK-registered tanker in the Strait of Hormuz – the world’s busiest oil route.
Tehran explained that the Stena Impero, with 23 crew members on board, was seized after colliding with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it allegedly ignored. The tanker was accused of “violating international regulations”.
A second tanker, registered in Liberia but operated by a British company, was released after being detained for several hours.
Jeremy Hunt claimed that the tanker was seized in Omani waters in “clear contravention of international law”; the company that owns the ship said it had been in international waters at the time and in full compliance with all regulations.
Officials in Tehran have said explicitly that the move came in retaliation for the detention of an Iranian supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar by British authorities two weeks ago.
The UK claimed that the tanker was transporting oil to Syria in circumvention of EU sanctions, which Iran denied.
The Islamic Republic accused Britain of “piracy” and vowed not to let the arrest go unanswered.
Jeremy Hunt said that Iran did view Friday’s incident as a “tit-for-tat situation”, but insisted that “nothing could be further from the truth”.
Boris Johnson, who is widely tipped to beat Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in the Tory leadership race and move into No. 10, has been shut out of government meetings on Iran.
However, as Johnson is expected to keep Hunt in his role, it is understood that the foreign secretary has briefed him on the progress in discussions.
Hunt reassured that the UK was not looking at military options, but that it would give a “robust” response, and Johnson’s recent pledges also signal that the conflict will likely be resolved in a diplomatic way.
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“Were I to be prime minister now, would I be supporting military action against Iran? Then the answer is no,” Johnson told a leadership debate this week.