By Rory Jones in Dubai and Benoit Faucon in London
Iran rebuffed European efforts to defuse tensions in the Persian Gulf, calling military escorts to secure shipping a provocation and rejecting U.K. terms for resolving a crisis over seized tankers.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had hinted last week that a tanker exchange would lower the pressure with the U.K. after Iran seized the Swedish-owned, British-flagged Stena Impero tanker earlier this month in the Persian Gulf. The move was widely viewed as retaliation for the detention of Iranian tanker Grace 1 in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar.
But on Sunday, an Iranian government spokesman said Tehran isn't willing to first release the Stena Impero in return for the Grace 1. Iran also rebuffed a key demand from Britain for releasing the Grace 1: That its 2 million barrels of oil not go to Syria. U.K. officials have said they seized the tanker to enforce a European Union embargo on oil sales to Syria.
"Our position is clear regarding the stolen Iranian ship: They should end the robbery," Ali Rabie, Iran's government spokesman, said of the authorities in the U.K. and Gibraltar, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
Then Iran "will decide based on goodwill" whether to release the Stena Impero, he added. Regarding not selling oil to Syria, Mr. Rabie said: "There is no reason for us to now give a guarantee."
The Stena Impero's seizure has left the U.K. scrambling for a response and thrust new Prime Minister Boris Johnson into a diplomatic melee in his first week in power. He must now navigate between maintaining London's ties with the White House while building support among European nations for a mission to safeguard shipping into the Persian Gulf.
The U.K. government didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would continue to ask Iran for a guarantee that Grace 1 wouldn't travel to Syria. A spokesman for Gibraltar referred to previous statements that it would facilitate the release of the Iranian oil vessel as long as it didn't breach EU sanctions.
The Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and other world powers last year and has imposed sanctions on Tehran to encourage it to negotiate a new agreement that would also limit its missile program and regional military presence. The White House also has boosted its forces in the region and accused Tehran of attacking commercial vessels near the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic passage into the Persian Gulf.
European nations have said they want to remain part of the nuclear accord. European officials have said they want to provide security for Persian Gulf shipping lanes in an effort that is separate from the White House's pressure campaign on Tehran.
But Mr. Rabie warned Sunday that a European military deployment in the Gulf would be viewed as an escalation of the crisis. "Such moves under the current conditions are provocative," he said, according to IRNA.
British warship HMS Montrose already is shepherding commercial vessels through the area and the U.K. said Sunday that another ship, HMS Duncan, had arrived in the Gulf.
The Stena Impero's owners on Saturday said they were continuing to work to secure the release of the ship's 23 crew members, who were visited by consular officials from India, Russia and the Philippines over the weekend.
The tanker standoff continued Sunday as world powers still committed to the nuclear deal met with Iranian representatives in Vienna to discuss ways to salvage the agreement.
Diplomats from France, the U.K., German, Russia and China are searching for ways to give Iran the economic benefits it sought in exchange for curbs on its atomic program in the 2015 deal. With U.S. sanctions hurting its economy, Iran has begun reducing its compliance with the pact, stockpiling and enriching uranium past limits in the agreement.
Adding to tension in the Gulf, Iran last week test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile in a sign that it doesn't plan to yield to U.S. demands to curtail its missile program. The Trump administration has yet to publicly acknowledge the test, which U.S. officials disclosed on Friday and Iran's state news agencies also reported.
In response to the Iranian missile, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that his country had completed three successful tests of its Arrow 3 ballistic missile interceptor over the past 10 days, with the help of the U.S.
"Israel has the ability to act against ballistic missiles that could be launched against us from Iran or anywhere else," Mr. Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting.
Felicia Schwartz in Tel Aviv and Jason Douglas in London contributed to this article.
Write to Rory Jones at [email protected] and Benoit Faucon at [email protected]