France has denounced the seizure in the Gulf by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of two Greek-flagged tankers after they loaded crude oil at the Iraqi port of Basra.
The French foreign ministry called the action “a serious violation of international law” and urged Iran “to immediately release the crews and vessels”.
Greece’s foreign ministry said Iran’s actions were “tantamount to acts of piracy” while the US said its Gulf-based Fifth Fleet was “looking into” the seizures.
The tankers were boarded by helicopter-borne Iranian naval commandos on Friday. Iran’s Nour news agency said the two ships were seized to retaliate for the US-instigated Greek seizure last month of Iranian-flagged Pegas carrying Iranian oil. The cargo was confiscated by the US under the ban of Iran’s oil exports.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh accused Greece of “highway robbery on the command of a third party”. He said the tanker crews “are safe and in good health”. Nour news, which is affiliated to an Iranian state security body, warned: “Iran will not remain passive in the face of any threat to its interests, and testing Iran’s will is a strategic error that will entail heavy costs for the United States and its entourage.”
Iran’s Tasnim news agency said 17 other Greek-flagged tankers operating in the Gulf would be at risk of seizure if its oil and tanker were not returned.
Greece has the world’s largest merchant fleet and it is its second biggest revenue source after tourism.
Iran’s ship seizures took place as tensions have risen with Israel and the US, beginning with the assassination of Guard Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei who had served in Syria. The New York Times reported Israel told the US it carried out the killing. This was followed by a drone attack, blamed on Israel, on Iran’s sensitive Parchin military base where an engineer was killed.
These events were capped by the imposition of fresh US sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a statement by US envoy Robert Malley that prospects were “tenuous at best” for a return to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions which have shrunk Iran’s economy.
Meanwhile, Iran’s allies in the Iraqi parliament joined independent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to pass a law criminalising normalisation with Israel and specifying punishments of prison terms and execution.
This could discourage Saudi Arabia from bowing to US pressure to establish relations with Israel. While Riyadh has said normalisation is possible once the Palestinians have a state, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has indicated he could agree to unconditional normalisation.
The law is also seen as a warning to the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which governs the Kurdish region where firms stand accused of covertly selling oil to Israel. The Barzani clan, which dominates the KDP, was aided and abetted by Israeli and US intelligence agencies during Kurdish uprisings (1961-91) against the Iraqi government.
The adoption of this Bill united pro-Iran and Sadrist assembly factions although their rivalry has prevented the election of a president, launching the process of appointing a prime minister and forming a government. Iraqi parliamentary elections were held last October and the new parliament first met in January.