Wed. 8:55 a.m.: Iran’s president hints at quid pro quo for seized UK ship

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — President Hassan Rouhani suggested today that Iran might release a U.K.-flagged ship if Britain takes similar steps to release an Iranian oil tanker seized by the British Royal Navy off Gibraltar earlier this month.

His remarks could create an opening to reduce tensions as Boris Johnson becomes prime minister. It’s unclear how the new government will respond to Rouhani’s suggestion or the impasse with Iran.

“We do not seek the continuation of tension with some European countries,” Rouhani said in comments carried on his website. “Should they be committed to international frameworks and give up their wrong actions, including what they did in Gibraltar, they will receive a proportional response from Iran.”

Britain this week announced plans to develop and deploy a Europe-led “maritime protection mission” to safeguard shipping in the area after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday.

Rouhani said that while Iran does not seek a military conflict, it will not allow threats to its security in the important waterway. He described the Iranian seizure of the ship as “professional and brave.”

Iranian officials have alleged the ship was seized after it violated international maritime law by turning off its signaling for longer than is allowed and passing through the wrong channels.

However, Iranian officials have also suggested the ship was seized in response to Britain’s role in impounding an Iranian supertanker two weeks earlier off the coast of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory. The U.K. says the tanker was suspected of violating sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.

Both sides have called the interception of one another’s ships “hostile acts” and “piracy.”

Stena Bulk, the owner of the ship being held by Iran, said it made first contact Tuesday evening with the crew of 23 since its seizure five days ago. The company said the ship’s master advised “that everyone was safe with good cooperation with the Iranian personnel onboard.”

The crew are mostly Indian, but also include Filipino, Russian and Latvian nationals. Iranian state TV aired video of the crew onboard the vessel off Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas earlier this week.

A spate of incidents in past weeks has threatened security in the Strait of Hormuz, which lies between Iran and Oman. Tensions have also soared following President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose maximal sanctions on Iran.

One-fifth of global crude passes through the Strait of Hormuz, making it an internationally important chokepoint for global energy supplies from Gulf exporters.

In past weeks, Iran has shot down a U.S. spy drone, U.S. officials say military cyberforces struck Iranian computer systems that handle missile and rocket launchers, and six oil tankers have been sabotaged near the strait.

Iranian officials today reiterated their denial that any Iranian drones were intercepted, after the U.S. military said Tuesday that it took aim at two of them last week.

U.S. Central Command said one Iranian drone crashed into the sea after the USS Boxer took “defensive action” against it last Thursday. It said the Boxer also “engaged” a second Iranian drone at the same time, but could not confirm it was destroyed.

Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Amir Hatami, told reporters today that “if someone claims he should provide evidence,” adding that “none of our drones have been intercepted.”

Despite a U.K. government advisory that British-flagged ships avoid the Strait of Hormuz, a large British-flagged vessel transited the corridor and arrived at a port in Qatar today.

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