A Revolutionary Guards member shouted “Allahu akbar”, the euphoric religious slogan, as gunboats buzzed a British-flagged tanker and a naval helicopter dropped troops on to the vessel, replicating how the UK impounded an Iranian oil tanker earlier this month.
Iran’s release of footage of the operation to commandeer the Stena Impero on Friday in the Strait of Hormuz demonstrated it had made good on its threat to retaliate for the Royal Navy’s seizure of the Grace 1 supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar.
“Eye for eye and hand for hand is our Islamic ideology. An American eye or a European hand are not more valuable than an Iranian eye or hand,” said Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician. “Iran will not let the balance of power be disrupted in the region, which would equal our death. If we let Britain treat us unjustly now, others will follow suit.”
Iranian leaders say they are committed to diplomatic solutions and seek neither escalation of tensions nor war with the US or other western states. But while they say they will not initiate any attack, they insist any act of aggression will be reciprocated, even if it risks wider conflagration.
The Islamic republic claims Britain seized the Grace 1 at the behest of the US in response to the guards’ shooting down of an American drone, which the US said had put the country some minutes away from a military confrontation with its arch enemy.
The UK denies the claim, warning that the seizure of the Stena Impero was hostile, put Iran on a “dangerous path” and that its response would be “considered and robust”. The UK has advised British shipping to stay out of the area for now.
Iran rejects British allegations that the Grace 1 was shipping oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
“That was a big lie by Britain. Was this the first tanker suspected of carrying oil in about one decade of war in Syria?” said Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst of Iran’s political economy.
While Iran is open to acknowledging it acted in retaliation, it claims the Stena Impero violated international maritime regulations by causing pollution in the vital waterway, switching off tracking devices to avoid Iranian forces and colliding with a fishing boat.
“Britain has a new Iran strategy and is so far the only country which has in practice got involved in helping the US aggression against Iran,” said Mr Laylaz. “We had no choice but to react and remind Britain that this is not 1953,” referring to the UK’s collaboration with the US in the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh.
The seizure of the Stena Impero came 24 hours after Washington claimed to have shot down an Iranian drone that ventured too close to a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran denies losing a drone and published images that it claimed were taken of the US warship in a successful mission.
Tensions between Tehran and western states were triggered after President Donald Trump last year unilaterally pulled the US out of a 2015 nuclear accord and reimposed the toughest sanctions yet levelled against the Islamic republic. These have greatly lowered Iran’s oil revenues, the country’s economic lifeline.
Iran remains in the deal but has breached limits on uranium enrichment, putting pressure on other signatories — including UK, France and Germany — to deliver on promised economic dividends.
Iranian analysts say the Islamic republic is willing to find a political solution to the current standoff, which could include negotiations with the US. But Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during a recent visit to New York that there could be no talks with Washington as long as sanctions were in place.
Analysts added that if Iran looked economically or militarily weak, the US could be emboldened not to make any concessions in any future negotiations.
“We are certainly proving ourselves through these limited conflicts that we are able to enforce our deterrent policy and respond to any aggression whether it is by the US drone or the British tanker,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a politician close to hardline forces.
“But if the enemy continues its aggressions, then Iran’s current defensive approach and reprisal will shift to an aggressive and pre-emptive approach.”
Iran says it has little tolerance of other western and regional countries helping the US to mount more pressure, in particular by using their military bases and capabilities.
Mr Taraghi added that Iran had told regional states that if they allowed the US to use their territories to launch attacks against Iran, the Islamic republic would regard them as enemies, hence subject to reprisal. “We have received positive responses from regional states, including [top rival] Saudi Arabia, that they would not get involved in any US war with Iran.”
Iran says it is capable of finding ways to circumvent sanctions while analysts say oil exports are rebounding slightly from a low of recent months. The country has repeatedly threatened to make trade in crude unsafe and expensive for everyone if its flow of oil is disrupted.
“Oil trade is now costing Britain more than it costs Iran due to higher insurance and costs of military escorts,” said Mr Taraghi. “The seizure of the [British-flagged] tanker was a message to the US and its agent, Britain: if you strike one blow, you would get 10 back.”