Written by David D. Kirkpatrick
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran suggested Wednesday that his country might release a British-flagged tanker in exchange for the return of an Iranian ship seized by the British military off the coast of Gibraltar.
Iranian officials had previously implied such an offer might be forthcoming, describing the capture of the British tanker as “retaliation” for the British having impounded the Iranian vessel earlier this month. Britain has already said the Gibraltar court system controls the fate of the Iranian tanker.
Still, Rouhani’s explicit extension of the offer on Wednesday may have been a gesture toward reducing the escalating tensions between Iran and the West.
Speaking after a Cabinet meeting in Tehran, Rouhani also alluded to indirect or behind-the-scenes talks about a potential easing of tensions between Iran and the United States.
“Of course, there are countries as intermediaries, and there are correspondences and calls underway, and everyone should know that we will never miss the opportunity for negotiation,” Rouhani said, according to a report on the official Iranian government website.
The conflict between Washington and Tehran centers on President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year from a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and his imposition this year of devastating economic sanctions against the country.
Under the accord, the United States and other world powers, including Britain, had promised Iran relief from earlier sanctions in exchange for the suspension of much of its nuclear program. Despite Iranian denials, the Western nations had feared its program could lead to a nuclear weapon. But Trump, denouncing the deal as a disaster perpetrated by the Obama administration, vowed to force Iran into a new pact that would be far more restrictive.
Iran has retaliated by taking calibrated steps to restart a nuclear energy program, insisting that it hopes to return to compliance as soon as the United States does.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spoken disparagingly of negotiations with the United States as a trap or even “poison.” But Rouhani suggested Wednesday that Iran would be willing to reopen negotiations with Washington if it removed its sanctions.
“If the other party takes the right and balanced action, and a cease-fire in the economic war is announced, there will be an opportunity to talk to each other and to come to a conclusion,” Rouhani said.
The British seized the Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion of violating a European Union embargo on the sale of oil to Syria.
Jeremy Hunt, who was then the British foreign secretary, said more than a week ago that he had told his Iranian counterpart that the captured ship, Grace 1, could be returned “if we received guarantees that it would not be going to Syria, following due process” in the Gibraltar courts. A court there last Friday extended the tanker’s detention until at least Aug. 15.
On the afternoon of the court ruling, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, as it tried to enter the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Britain has since warned ships to stay away from that crucial shipping route and sent additional British warships to help patrol the Persian Gulf.
Hunt also said Monday that Britain was working with Western allies to organize an expanded maritime security effort in the Gulf. At the same time, though, Hunt distanced Britain from the Trump administration. He noted pointedly that Britain’s maritime security effort would be “European-led” and conducted with European allies. “It will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran,” he said.
But the arrival on Wednesday of a new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has raised questions about future British policy toward Iran. Putting his stamp on the Cabinet, the new prime minister named an ally as foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to replace Hunt.
Separately, the Swedish company that owns the seized British-flagged tanker said Wednesday that it had made contact with the crew. “Everyone was safe, with good cooperation with the Iranian personnel onboard,” the company, Stena Bulk, said in a statement.
Iran has said that all 23 crew members remain on board, now in an Iranian port. None are British or American. The largest number — 18 — are citizens of India.