When Iran seized the British-registered tanker Stena Impero on July 19 as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz, it caused deep embarrassment for the government of then British Prime Minister Theresa May, which had failed to put adequate measures in place to protect British shipping from any act of Iranian retaliation. Pictured: The Stena Impero and one of the Iranian gunboats that seized it. (Image source: Fars News/CC BY 4.0 [cropped])
The sorry saga of the Iranian oil tanker that was originally seized by Britain before making its way to Syria to unload its cargo in breach of EU sanctions highlights the confusion that lies at the heart of the British government's policy towards Tehran.
The Iranian-registered tanker, which at the time sailed under the name Grace One, was seized by British Royal Marines in early July off the coast of Gibraltar on suspicion that it was delivering its cargo of 2.1 million barrels of oil to Syria, a clear violation of EU sanctions that are in place against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Iran responded two weeks later by seizing the British-registered tanker Stena Impero as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz, thereby causing deep embarrassment for the government of then British Prime Minister Theresa May, which had failed to put adequate measures in place to protect British shipping from any act of Iranian retaliation.
The ensuing diplomatic stand-off between London and Tehran eventually resulted in Britain agreeing to release the Grace One, but only after the British authorities received written assurances from Iran that the oil would not be delivered to Syria.
Now it appears that Iran has deliberately misled the British government about its intentions after satellite photographs revealed the ship, which has now been renamed the Adrian Darya 1, is in Syria, where its $130 million oil cargo has been handed over to the Assad regime.
The ship's arrival in Syria has certainly caused deep embarrassment in London, where this week the Foreign Office issued a statement saying that Iran's actions represented an "unacceptable violation of international norms" and added that it would raise the issue at the UN General Assembly in New York later this month. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned that, "We want Iran to come in from the cold, but the only way to do that is to keep its word and comply with the rules-based international system."
Iran, meanwhile, has refused to confirm that the oil was delivered to Syria, with a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry saying only that the ship had delivered its cargo after docking "on the Mediterranean coast".
Iran's duplicity is nevertheless deeply humiliating for Britain, which has sought to maintain relations with Iran and continue to support the controversial nuclear deal with Tehran despite the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the agreement last year and impose fresh sanctions on Iran.
Washington was particularly keen that the Iranian tanker should not be allowed to deliver its cargo to Syria and, following the British government's decision to let it leave Gibraltar, threatened to impose sanctions against any European country that provided assistance to the tanker.
The news that the vessel had arrived in Syria provoked a strong reaction from then National Security Advisor John Bolton who, in one of his last acts before leaving the Trump administration earlier this week, directly criticised Britain's handling of the issue in a tweet:
"Anyone who said the Adrian Darya-1 wasn't headed to #Syria is in denial. Tehran thinks it's more important to fund the murderous Assad regime than provide for its own people. We can talk, but #Iran's not getting any sanctions relief until it stops lying and spreading terror!"
The affair certainly highlights the underlying tensions between Washington and London over the Iran issue, with Britain still refusing to support Washington's more robust approach despite being on the receiving end of numerous acts of provocation on behalf of Tehran.
Apart from the seizure in the Strait of Hormuz of the British-registered tanker -- which is still being held in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas despite the release of the Iranian vessel -- Iran has detained a number of British nationals on a trumped-up charge of spying.
British officials have also spent the past three years attempting to secure the release from Tehran of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who is being held, apparently for a time chained to a bed in a psychiatric ward in Evin prison, after being convicted of spying, charges which she denies.
Now the Iranians have seized Jolie King, a British-Australian blogger, and her boyfriend after they were found camping close to an Iranian military base. The Iranians have informed Miss King that they will free her as part of a prisoner swap for an Iranian mother currently being held in the U.S., prompting British campaigners to accuse Tehran of pursuing "state-sponsored kidnap".
Despite these constant acts of provocation by Iran, however, the British government mystifyingly remains committed to upholding the 2015 nuclear deal, insisting that it is the best means of maintaining a dialogue with Tehran.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph's Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.