Iran on Friday demanded that the British navy release an Iranian oil tanker seized last week off Gibraltar, accusing London of playing a “dangerous game” and threatening retribution, while London announced it was sending a destroyer to the Persian Gulf.
The comments from Iran's Foreign Ministry came the day after police in Gibraltar, a British territory on the southern tip of Spain, said they arrested the captain and chief officer of the supertanker suspected of breaching European Union sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told the Iranian state news agency IRNA that “the legal pretexts for the capture are not valid ... the release of the tanker is in all countries' interest.”
“This is a dangerous game and has consequences,” Mousavi warned.
During Friday prayers, Kazem Sedighi, an advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened retribution.
“Rest assured, Britons will soon feel the slap of the powerful hands of the Islamic Republic,” he said.
The British navy said Thursday it had stopped three Iranian paramilitary vessels from disrupting the passage of a British oil tanker through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical shipping lane at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iran's Revolutionary Guard denied any incident had occurred in the strait.
That brief but tense standoff is believed to have stemmed from the British seizure of the Iranian tanker Grace I off Gibraltar on July 4.
On Friday, the British Ministry of Defense said it was moving up its timetable for relieving the frigate Montrose, which has been operating in the Persian Gulf, with the larger destroyer Duncan after the recent developments.
“This will ensure that the U.K. alongside international partners can continue to support freedom of navigation for vessels transiting through this vital shipping lane,” the ministry said.
At the same time, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for “cool heads” to prevail to ensure there is no “unintended escalation.”
The Iranian tanker intercepted last week was carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil, the head of Gibraltar's government said Friday.
A senior Spanish official had previously said the interception was carried out at the request of the United States, but Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told Parliament no other government had asked the territory to act.
He said the ship is suspected of breaching European Union sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and that any nation with a claim to the vessel and its cargo can file a claim in court.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif scoffed at the accusation that Iran was violating sanctions, which he said “are meant to stop Europe from buying Syria's oil; they are not about another country selling oil to Syria.” Zarif spoke in an interview Thursday with the pro-Iran Lebanese satellite news channel Al-Mayadeen.
The tanker's interception has stoked already high tensions in the region, as the Trump administration continues its campaign of maximum pressure on Iran.
Iran has recently begun surpassing uranium enrichment limits set in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in response to President Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the accord a year ago.