British oil tanker Stena Impero

British oil tanker Stena Impero Stena Bulk via AP

‘Looking to Break Status Quo,’ Iran Seizes UK Tanker

Pentagon intel chief says Tehran wants to escape U.S. pressure, but not by going to war.

ASPEN, Colo. — Iranian forces have seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, heightening the uncertainty in the region amid the disintegrating Iran nuclear deal and reigniting fears that simmering tensions with Iran could flare into conflict.

A Liberian-flagged tanker was also seized, British officials said Friday. None of the captured crew are British citizens and it was not immediately apparent whether there were any casualties. 

Iran has protested the July 4 British seizure of one of its tankers in Gibraltar, which the U.K. said was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Asked on Friday whether Friday’s incident was a likely retaliation for the detention of their ship, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that Iran typically looks for “things that are proportional in nature” to respond to actions from other nations that it considers a threat. 

Broadly, Iran is seeking to “break the status quo” of the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign of stifling sanctions, Ashley said.

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“They’re not looking to do something that is going to spiral out of control because war is not what they’re looking for,” Ashley told a small group of reporters at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “But at the same time, their decision calculus is they’ve gotta do something in response.”

The Trump administration has warned since May that Tehran is carrying out an intensifying campaign of provocative actions. Last month, President Trump ordered and then canceled airstrikes in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone that Iran said was flying in its airspace. (The United States says that the drone was flying over international waters.) On Thursday, U.S. Marines destroyed a drone that the White House said was Iranian (Tehran denies it) and which Pentagon officials said was closing in on an amphibious assault ship operating in the region.

The U.K. has publicly backed Washington’s assessment of an elevated threat posed by Iran, but it did not support Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement and it has throughout the spring called for de-escalating tensions with Tehran. The issue has driven a wedge into the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship.” 

Sigal Mandelker, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, denied Friday that the administration has put its allies in a tough spot in the region. 

"I know there's a narrative that we're not working with our European colleagues. It's just wrong,” she said, speaking on a panel at the Aspen conference. “We have worked closely with our European colleagues on countering [Iran’s] malign behavior.”

As of Friday afternoon, it remained unclear not only how the U.K. will respond to the seizure of the two vessels — but also what the United States will do.

U.S. Central Command said in a statement that it has patrol aircraft “operating in international airspace monitoring the situation within the Strait of Hormuz” and that the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command “has been in contact with U.S. ships operating in the area to ensure their safety."

If the United States hadn’t ordered airstrikes in June, this latest episode might not have drawn as much attention, said Mara Karlin, a Brookings Institution fellow and former defense official. But now, she said, Trump’s flirtation with airstrikes in June makes it almost impossible to predict how the White House, which has made constraining Iran a key pillar of its foreign policy, might respond to the seizure of a ship flagged to its closest ally. “We’re now in a totally different landscape,” she said, where both Iran and U.S. allies like the U.K. don’t understand Trump’s “escalation ladder.”

Tehran’s next move also remains unclear. The seizures could simply be a tit-for-tat way to press the U.K. to release the ship in Gibraltar, analysts say, or it could be a way to increase leverage in possible negotiations with the United States. On Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister offered a modest deal as a way out of the crisis. The following day, Wendy Sherman, one of the lead negotiators on the original 2015 nuclear pact under the Obama administration, at Aspen that the offer was a legitimate effort at negotiation. 

There is also the possibility that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Forces responsible for the seizure were acting of their own accord, not under any orders from Iran’s Supreme Leader or its more moderate president. “I don’t think they’re related at all,” Karlin said of the foreign minister’s offer and the seizures. “It’s being too generous” to see the two events as a coordinated strategy.

Tensions with Iran have been on the rise since May, when the Trump administration began warning of what it described as an aggressive campaign by Iran designed to get the United States to back off its “maximum pressure” strategy. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, arguing that it was too narrow in scope and allowed Iran to get away with too much other bad behavior beyond its nuclear program.

In recent weeks, Iran has taken steps to reinstate elements of its nuclear weapons program previously limited by the deal. 

The Trump administration insists that its maximum pressure campaign is working, by forcing Iran to the negotiating table and denying them revenue needed to build out their weapons programs and fund proxy groups. "Without a doubt, sanctions are working," Mandelker said. 

Critics say that the president’s more hawkish advisors — like national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are courting war by backing Iran into a corner. “My fundamental question to the administration is: What is the strategy? I know it's about maximum pressure. But to what end?" Sherman said. 

There are signs that both Iran and the United States are looking for an off-ramp to defuse the crisis. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s negotiation offer on Friday came as the Trump administration has begun to signal that it is willing to open negotiations without preconditions. Mandelker said that she sees signs Iran wants to return to the negotiating table, although it remains to be seen if they are “the right signals.” 

“I couldn’t tell you definitively what I would think is going to reestablish deterrence,” Ashley said. “I think that’s part of the goal.”