On Friday afternoon, the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker was making its way through the Strait of Hormuz when it was suddenly surrounded in the sea and in the air. Speedboats circled as masked men rappelled from helicopters to take control of the ship.
It was not long before Iran’s Revolutionary Guard announced that it had detained the vessel, and in that moment a diplomatic crisis was sparked that mobilised the highest levels of the British government.
As far as Iran sees it, however, the crisis began some time ago – and the UK is to blame. On the morning after the seizure, the country’s newspapers largely characterised the incident as a reaction to British aggression, and a moment of triumph.
“Tanker for tanker; Iran acted to its pledge,” read the headline on the front page of the ultra-conservative Kayhan, referencing the seizure of an Iranian vessel by British Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month.
The reformist Ebtekar followed suit, with: “The seizure of an oil tanker over the capture of an oil tanker.”
“The Queen’s thieves captive in the strait,” was how conservative newspaper Resalat saw the seizure. Other newspapers supported the detention as “lawful”, and referenced numerous “violations” by the British vessel.
Iran’s press is tightly restricted by the government, and the coverage closely mirrors the government’s characterisation of the crisis. Since Friday’s seizure, Iranian officials have largely echoed the media narrative.
The spokesperson for Iran’s Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was quoted in the semi-official Fars news agency describing the seizure as a legal “reciprocal action”. The council’s statements are seen in Iran as being reflective of the views of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
The Strait of Hormuz has become a flashpoint in a standoff between Iran and the US, which was sparked by President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon a landmark nuclear deal and reintroduce sanctions.
Britain and the US have accused Iran of carrying out a series of attacks on tankers in the strait – a vital shipping route that connects Middle Eastern oil suppliers to the rest of the world.
But tensions boiled over when British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker on 4 July in Gibraltar, on suspicion that it was ferrying a cargo of 2.1 million barrels of crude oil to Syria in contravention of European sanctions.
Ali Khamenei vowed to retaliate to the seizure of Grace 1, calling it an act of “piracy”, and things escalated from there.
On Tuesday, Iran said it had detained a “foreign oil tanker”, which was later identified as the Emirates-based MT Riah. Anticipating further seizures, the British Navy dispatched two ships to protect tankers passing through the strait — HMS Montrose and HMS Duncan. However, neither made it in time.
The Revolutionary Guard said Stena Impero had been seized for “not observing international marine rules”.
Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the west last year, calling it “defective to its core”. His administration argued that increased pressure would further inhibit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, which could be used for a nuclear weapons programme.
Since pulling out, Washington has imposed several rounds of new sanctions against Iran in an effort to forge a deal more favourable to the US. In response, Iran has increased uranium production and enrichment above the limits of the deal.