- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2019

Iran reiterated Sunday that it will pursue a “toll” on all ships traveling in the Strait of Hormuz — the latest escalation of a global crisis that threatens the movement of oil through the Middle East and may force a reluctant Britain to impose fresh economic sanctions on Tehran.

Iranian lawmakers demanded that each vessel in the strait pay a fee for safe passage just 48 hours after Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commandos in black ski masks rappelled from a helicopter onto a British oil tanker and took control of the vessel. The ship, the Stena Impero, and its 23 crew members remained in detention at an Iranian port Sunday as the West scrambled to figure out how to respond to Tehran’s latest provocation.

The United Kingdom, which has been reticent to pursue major new economic sanctions on Iran as London clings to an Obama-era deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program, suggested over the weekend that it may indeed resort to economic punishment.

British officials said they intend to beef up the nation’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf region, and the Pentagon said it is launching a multinational effort to increase “surveillance and security” in the region.

The demand that all ships in the region pay a toll, an idea first floated several weeks ago, ups the ante considerably and suggests that Tehran has no intention of scaling back its disruptions.

“We support the IRGC Navy’s proper and firm measure to seize an offending British oil tanker and ask the IRGC to continue its path firmly and powerfully,” a group of Iranian lawmakers said in a statement, as quoted by the Fars News Agency. “Finally, we urge the honorable government and president to put on its agenda the issue of collecting toll from the ships which pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”

SEE ALSO: Theresa May, British PM, to chair emergency session on seized tanker

The international community has so far brushed off Tehran’s plan to impose a toll, but Friday’s capture of the Stena Impero indicates that Iran is deadly serious about its policy of trying to control all maritime traffic in the waters off its coast. Iran also has detained other ships traveling through the region, and the U.S. says the IRGC is responsible for several limpet mine attacks on commercial oil vessels last month.

Defense Department officials say they are ramping up security efforts to ensure safety on the seas. The global effort dubbed Operation Sentinel was announced just days after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian drone over international waters near the Strait of Hormuz.

“U.S. Central Command is developing a multinational maritime effort, Operation Sentinel, to increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation in light of recent events in the Arabian Gulf region,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement over the weekend. “This maritime security framework will enable nations to provide escort to their flagged vessels while taking advantage of the cooperation of participating nations for coordination and enhanced maritime domain awareness and surveillance.”

Iran is trying to impede the flow of oil through the Middle East as a direct response to the Trump administration’s global embargo on all exports of Iranian oil.

The embargo is a key piece of a broader set of economic sanctions designed to drive Iran back to the negotiating table. The White House is pushing for Iran to fully give up its nuclear weapons program, end all financial support for terrorism and take a host of other steps.

But key U.S. allies have hesitated to fully join that economic pressure campaign. Britain has tried to keep in place the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which offered some economic relief in exchange for a scaled-back nuclear program.

President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that pact last year.

On the heels of the ship seizure, however, British officials say they are open to new sanctions on Iran.

“This is a hostile act; let’s not dodge away from that. This is a serious matter which Iran must recognize,” U.K. Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood told Sky News over the weekend after he was asked specifically about sanctions. “We’re looking at the operational responsibilities from that, but, yes, we are going to be looking at a series of options.”

British and Iranian officials say they want to de-escalate tensions in the region, but audio and video released over the weekend provides a chilling look at the takeover of the Stena Impero and demonstrates the lengths to which Iran is willing to go.

Video released by the IRGC shows Iranian forces rappelling onto the boat from a helicopter as speedboats encircle the vessel. Audio released by the maritime security risk firm Dryad Global reveals how British naval officers tried to warn Iran not to board the ship.

“Sir, I reiterate that as you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, intruded, obstructed or hampered,” an unidentified British officer says in the recording.

An Iranian officer says simply: “You obey, you will be safe.”

Stena Bulk, the company that owns the Stena Impero, said Sunday that it had made a formal request to visit the 23 crew members held at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Iran gave no immediate formal response to the request, the company said.

“All of Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management’s efforts and focus continue to be on the welfare and safe return of our crew and supporting their families during this very difficult time,” Stena Bulk President Erik Harnell said Sunday. “Our local staff in India, Latvia, Philippines, Russia are in constant touch with the families, and we will continue to do everything humanly possible to keep them informed and to support them in every way we can.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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