Written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Megan Specia
Iran seized at least one British oil tanker in a vital Persian Gulf waterway Friday, an escalation of tensions with the West that revived fears of a military clash, even as voices on both sides appeared to be seeking room for negotiations.
The impoundment of the tanker by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard came a day after the United States said it had downed an Iranian drone menacing a US warship in the region.
But Iran’s standoff with Britain carries its own complications. Britain occupies a pivotal place in a bloc of European states that have tried to broker some resolution to a broader conflict between Tehran and Washington over the fate of a 2015 deal with the world powers designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain convened an emergency meeting of advisers late Friday to respond.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said before the meeting that he was “extremely concerned” and called the seizure “unacceptable.”
At the time Hunt spoke, Iran had at least briefly detained a second British owned ship, and Hunt said the meeting would address “what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels.”
“We’re not looking at military options; we’re looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation,” Hunt said later. “But we are very clear that it must be resolved.”
Tensions between Britain and Iran spiked earlier this month when the British military impounded an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar on suspicion of having violated a European Union embargo on the sale of oil to Syria. Iran called the seizure “piracy,” accused Britain of acting on a pretext at the behest of Washington and threatened to capture a British ship in retaliation.
Iranian vessels first tried to stop a British tanker in the Persian Gulf region a few days later. After a short standoff, a British warship drove them away.
But Friday afternoon, Iranian news agencies reported the Revolutionary Guard had seized at least one British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz.
The news agencies quoted the Guard as saying the tanker had “violated three international naval regulations.”
It was unclear late Friday if British authorities had confirmed the release of the second tanker.
At least one senior US military official Friday appeared to play down the latest escalation by Iran, calling it a foreseeable response to the British seizure of an Iranian tanker a few weeks earlier near Gibraltar.
“They look for things that are proportional in nature,” Lt. Gen Robert P. Ashley Jr., the top military intelligence officer, said in a discussion with journalists at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “They aren’t looking to go to war, but at the same time they are looking to project strength.”