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Britain seeks diplomatic solution with Iran over Gulf crisis

In response to the seizure of an Iranian-flagged ship by the United Kingdom earlier this month, Iran on Friday took a British oil tanker and its 23 members. As tensions between the two countries rise, Britain is looking to de-escalate the Gulf crisis diplomatically. Jackie Northam, NPR’s international affairs correspondent, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Iran continues to hold a British oil tanker and its 23 crew members after seizing it on Friday.

    Iran's Revolutionary Guard released video today showing the Stena Impero flying an Iranian flag, docked in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas. There is no sign of the crew.

    Britain's transport agency tweeted a map this morning that it says shows Iranian boats and troops forced the tanker out of international waters and highlighted the location where it was intercepted, boarded and rerouted into Iranian water.

    In an audio recordings from a security firm released today an Iranian officer can be heard telling the Stena Impero to change course on Friday.

  • Audio Clip:

    Stena Impero, Stena Impero, I say again my last, you are ordered to change your course to 3-6-0, 3-6-0 degrees immediately. If you obey, you will be safe. Over.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And a British naval officer on a ship in the area insists the Stena Impero be allowed to sail through the Strait of Hormuz.

  • Audio Clip:

    This is British warship Foxtrot 2, 3, 6. You must not impair, impede, obstruct, or hamper the passage of the MV Stena Impero.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Joining me now for more on the developing situation in the Persian Gulf and Iran, Britain and the United States's response is Jackie Northam, international affairs correspondent for National Public Radio who joins us now from Washington D.C..

    First, this is a slow and developing story but it seems that the tension keeps going higher and higher now with people kind of positioning… well where was the ship or wasn't the ship? Who told them to go where, at what time?

  • Jackie Northam:

    Yes certainly the the video helped to start proving some of these things for sure. There's no question that the tension is high in this area. There is big concern about ships whether they should be sailing through the Strait of Hormuz or in the surrounding waters as you say this ship was in Omani waters at the time. On top of that, insurance rates are going up. Some countries like the U. The U.K. says stay away, British ships for now because we just don't know what's going to happen and really they really do not have the resources to help these ships. The Steno Impero, if the British Navy could have got there in time, it could have helped them. But the fact of the matter is the British frigate was 60 minutes away it couldn't do much and it gives you a sense just how thin the resources are in this area to help any ship that is taken by Iranians.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what has the response been by the British government and allies?

  • Jackie Northam:

    Well the British government for its part is trying to solve this diplomatically. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary has said he doesn't want a military answer to this. He has reached out to Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif and the two have had a talk but the fact of the matter is Javad Zarif doesn't have all the power in Iran. You have the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that also have a say and they are the ones that are doing this.

    The U.S. itself is trying to pull together a coalition, a maritime coalition, to help protect ships that are in this region but so far it hasn't got a lot of trash and there's not a lot of appetite because A. It's dangerous. B. There's just so many ships in this area that it would be extremely difficult to protect them. The other problem too is is that a lot of the countries particularly the Europeans are not happy that the U.S. pulled out of this 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and they said this is what really has led to where the position that we're in right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And then there's also kind of a direct tension between Iran and the U.K. Iran says that this is retaliatory action if anything… the U.K. is going through a transition of power very soon.

  • Jackie Northam:

    Oh yes. The next leader of the U.K., which should be decided this week, is walking headlong into this crisis. Boy, talk about baptism by fire! They're going to have to deal with this. Absolutely. You know part of the problem too is that Iran says this was a retaliatory action for a tanker that British forces seized in Gibraltar earlier this month. And what happened was on Friday the Gibraltar court decided to extend the detention of that tanker and all of a sudden, two hours later the Iranians have taken a British tanker. So it seems like a tit for tat which could keep continuing if this goes on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And in the context of that diplomacy, you've got Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the former leader of Iran saying things like, hey let's start direct talks with the United States and try to figure out how to move forward on this. And it kind of came out of the blue.

  • Jackie Northam:

    All right. And Javad Zarif again the Iranian foreign minister when he was in the U.S., in New York last week, he met with a lot of western journalists and he was kind of dangling that out there as well that perhaps there could be some reopening of talks here you know under very strict circumstances which is something that the U.S. didn't rise to. They didn't want to take that bait if you like.

    The fact of the matter is somewhere some sort of negotiation is going to have to be carried out because you know is so volatile in the Gulf right now that there's so much of the world's crude, 20 percent of the world's crude flows through the Strait of Hormuz. It's really important for global shipping that you know that this remains sort of a calm area rather than what we're seeing right now. So there is reasons on all sides to try to sort this out but we'll have to see what's going to happen in the next little while. Apparently Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has been allowed to be middle man if you like between Iran and the U.S. right now. President Trump says he's given the decision to do that right. So we'll see if that might somehow open up things here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. NPR's Jackie Northam joining us from Washington tonight thanks so much.

  • Jackie Northam:

    Thank you.

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