© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Will Iran's Seizure Of A British-Flagged Tanker Escalate Tensions?


Britain's prime minister, Theresa May, will officially relinquish power this week. But her last few days in office have been anything but calm. This morning she is chairing an emergency meeting to consider how the U.K. should respond after members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. Here's how Britain's foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, responded.


JEREMY HUNT: We are calling on Iran to reverse this illegal act. We're looking for ways to de-escalate the situation, but we're also very clear that we will do what it takes to ensure the safety and security of British and international shipping.

MARTIN: For its part, Iran insists that this was not an illegal act. In fact, Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, claimed that the seizure was a way of upholding international maritime rules. Joining us now, David Miliband - he served as the U.K.'s foreign minister in a Labour government from 2007 to 2010. He is now the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So as I mentioned, the prime minister, Theresa May, is holding this meeting today to discuss the situation with Iran. Can you put yourself at that table? What advice would you offer in this moment?

MILIBAND: I think that the proximate cause of this crisis in the Straits of Hormuz is obviously the British seizure of the Iranian vessel, the Grace 1, in Gibraltar, which was seized for violating European laws in respects of sanctions and support for the Assad regime. The tanker is alleged to have been taking fuel to support the Assad regime.

But obviously, there's a wider context. And the wider context is the breakdown of the international nuclear accord with Iran that was signed in 2015. And so the immediate task is - as Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said in your short clip - is to de-escalate. But obviously, there's a wider context because the European countries continue to support the nuclear accord. They continue to believe that is a way of addressing the fears about Iran's nuclear ambitions. And the Europeans wanted to move on to tackle Iran's regional misbehavior in a separate series of negotiations.

The Trump administration obviously pulled the rug from the nuclear accord. And while there is disunity in the West, it's very hard to see any serious engagement with Iran that convinces them that the negotiating process will have credibility. So there's a short-term need to resolve this issue about the two tankers - one held by the Iranians, one by the British. But there's a wider context that needs to be addressed.

MARTIN: Right. And I want to get to that. But I do want to talk about the specifics of these two incidents. Iran, while giving mixed messages over the justification for seizing the British-flagged ship, ultimately, they did admit that this is basically tit for tat, that the Brits had seized an Iranian vessel off of Gibraltar, as you note. But Iran's message is that they actually weren't violating any sanctions, that they are not party to the EU sanctions that prevent trade with Syria.

MILIBAND: Well, look: you're absolutely right to point out there's law here and there's politics - international law in respect of freedom of shipping, European sanctions in respect of President Assad and the Syrian regime - but there's also politics here. And tit for tat, I think, is the right way of putting it. You could also call it an eye for an eye. That's the danger.

And obviously, that lays the basis for this to be resolved. In the end, while Britain insists that they are upholding international law and the Iranians are violating it and the Iranians, more or less, send the opposite message. It's going to be a political deal because it's in both sides' interest for this to be de-escalated.

So the narrow issue of these two ships, I think, can be resolved. The tit for tat can be reversed. The wider issue, obviously, is much more grave because the U.S. position, which is to exert, quote, unquote, "maximum pressure" on the Iranian regime, is causing real damage. But everyone knows that that is only strengthening the hard-liners in Iran and making it less likely that there'll be any kind of accord or agreement.

MARTIN: So you discuss a short-term need to resolve the situation with the tankers but also these larger issues about the Iran nuclear deal. How do you separate them, though? I mean, isn't this - this is what Iran is about in this moment. They want to agitate Britain to give them the financial benefits that were promised under the Iran nuclear deal. So that is the conversation they want to have.

MILIBAND: Well, if I may say so, they don't believe that Britain on its own can do that. They have been put into a corner by the U.S. decision to pull out from the nuclear deal. Remember the hard-liners in Iran said from the beginning, you can never trust the West. In 20 - I was negotiating for three years, until 2010. For the subsequent five years, the hard-liners in the regime always said, you can never come to an agreement with the West because they'll always betray you.

In 2015, the supreme leader of Iran was persuaded by the so-called reformists that it was worth doing the deal, that they would curb their nuclear ambitions, that they would dismantle their nuclear facilities, that they would open themselves up to unprecedented IAEA - International Atomic Energy Authority - inspections. In return, they would get economic relief. Then what happened once the Trump administration came in and when President Trump withdrew from the deal is the hard-liners said, look; we told you we were right. We can never trust these people. And it's imperative, therefore, that we strike back. That's what we're now living through.

MARTIN: Can I...

MILIBAND: And the assent - sorry. Go on.

MARTIN: Oh. I was just going to push you a little bit on the specifics of this moment. Do you think the U.K. should impose sanctions right now? Do you think they should consider a military response?

MILIBAND: No. I think there - first of all, there is no military option. But a military option will be extremely unwise in this respect. The last thing the Middle East needs is another war. The British and the rest of the European Union - as well as the Russians and the Chinese, actually - continue to adhere to the nuclear deal that was done with the Iranians. And in the end, the short-term context is going to have to be resolved diplomatically. The longer-term context, I would argue, also needs diplomatic resolution. But that needs a re-engagement, both with the nuclear issue and with the wider regional questions that are raised by Iran's behavior.

MARTIN: May I ask you briefly - Boris Johnson is the likely new prime minister as of this Wednesday in the U.K. - how is that leadership change going to affect how Britain deals with Iran?

MILIBAND: I think that there is a lot of questioning about how Boris Johnson will deal with the Iran question, given the very difficult context of Brexit - the unfinished business of Brexit - which is a wrecking ball on Britain's politics as well as its constitutional position, given the situation in Northern Ireland, and the wider international relations means that the great fear is that Boris Johnson will not be able to give an issue like the Iran question the detailed examination and attention it deserves. I'm very sad to be on U.S. radio saying that Britain is consumed by its own internal problems and can't at the moment play an international role, but that is the situation.

MARTIN: Former British Foreign Minister David Miliband, thank you for your time.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: We're also following yet another development in Iran today. Iran says it has arrested 17 people on charges of spying for the United States. An Iranian intelligence official says that some of those who are detained will be executed.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is following this and joins us in studio. Hi, Greg.


Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do we know at this point about these 17 people?

MYRE: Well, this Iranian official gave a press conference in Tehran to announce these arrests. Now, apparently they're all Iranians. There was no mention that any other nationalities were involved. And he claimed they were attempting to steal military and nuclear secrets but weren't successful. They were all caught and apparently part of the same network. And he says the CIA offered them money and visas to the United States to get them to spy.

Now, oddly, this Iranian official, even though he gave a public press conference to reporters there, didn't give his name. He just said he was from the intelligence ministry. And he said some of these 17 would be put to death, but he didn't say how many or when this might happen.

MARTIN: And did he reference any evidence that the Iranians could point to to prove that these people were involved in American spying?

MYRE: Nothing specific. They apparently also released a little documentary video with a woman talking about how the U.S. tried to recruit spies there. But we don't have specific - we don't have names or which specific ministries they were operating in allegedly.

MARTIN: So what's the U.S. saying about this?

MYRE: So Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed this on an - in an interview on "Fox & Friends" this morning, and we can have a listen to what he had to say.


MIKE POMPEO: The Iranian regime has a long history of lying. It's part of the nature of the Ayatollah to lie to the world. I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they've taken.

MYRE: And President Trump has tweeted about this. He said that, quote, "the report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false - zero truth, just more lies and propaganda." And again, I think the timing of this is also a little bit suspicious, this middle of this conflict between the U.S. and Iran, for Iran to make this announcement without providing detailed evidence.

MARTIN: Right. Can you just put this in broader context of the other behavior we've seen from Iran over the past couple of weeks?

MYRE: Well, there's a long history of spying between the U.S. and Iran. We can go all the way back to the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt. He orchestrated a coup against Iran in 1953 to restore the Shah to power. And then fast-forward 27 years, when the Iranian militants took over the U.S. Embassy and held hostages there. They called this a nest of spies. And that was one of their big allegations - that the U.S. was spying on Iran all the time.

And more recently, just in 2010, the U.S. and Israel have been blamed for being behind the so-called Stuxnet virus, this cyberattack on Iran's nuclear facilities. So there's a lot of history there. And even sometimes maybe when there's not history, there's certainly a lot of suspicion there.

MARTIN: Right. And this is the latest in this long line of aggressive actions by Iran. The latest, as we heard from David Miliband, was the seizure of this British-flagged ship. This was of course, as he described, a tit for tat for the Brits seizing an Iranian vessel off the coast of Gibraltar. Any indication as to when either of those vessels will be released?

MYRE: We don't know. We're waiting to hear from the - Britain's been having a security meeting trying to sort this out. But it does seem like there is a way out in that part of the conflict. Britain and Iran both have a ship. They could negotiate; they could trade that. The larger conflict, it's not so clear what's going to happen.

MARTIN: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre for us this morning. Thank you.

MYRE: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "MOON IN WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.