The military situation in the Strait of Hormuz just got significantly worse this week as Iran upped the stakes in retaliation for US sanctions by seizing a British oil tanker.
Britain on Saturday threatened Iran with “serious consequences” for seizing a British-owned oil tanker the previous evening as the government warned ships to avoid the crucial shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz.
The British government said in a statement after an emergency meeting that it had “advised U.K. shipping to stay out of the area for an interim period.”
The crisis has caught Britain at a singularly vulnerable moment. Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to resign on Wednesday. A leadership contest within the governing Conservative Party to determine her successor has all but paralyzed the government. And now the uncertainty about Britain’s internal direction is compounding the problem of forming a response to Iran’s seizure of the tanker.
The British defense minister, Penny Mordaunt, said in a television interview on Saturday that the ship had been intercepted in Omani, not Iranian, waters and called the seizure “a hostile act.” By Saturday afternoon, Britain had summoned the Iranian ambassador to register its protest, and a second emergency cabinet meeting was set to begin.
The capture of the tanker — two weeks after British forces impounded an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar — sharply escalates a crisis between Iran and the West after three months of rising tensions that last month brought the United States within minutes of a military strike against targets in Iran. A fifth of the world’s crude oil supply is shipped from the Persian Gulf through the narrow Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Iran, and oil prices spiked sharply on Friday even before the British warning.
But the next moves in the showdown over the tanker are likely to turn on the outcome of the British leadership contest, and the favorite, Boris Johnson, a flamboyant former mayor of London and former foreign minister, is famously unpredictable.
In other words, the odds of a joint US/UK operation against Tehran with the newly minted PM at the helm wanting to show strength (and Donald Trump definitely wanting to bury the Mueller testimony scheduled for this week on Capitol Hill) are significant.
I don't know for sure how this will shake out, but we already know Trump tried to attack Iran once and stood down for whatever reason. A second such fake-out won't be in the cards, and when Trump does pull the trigger, all bets are off.