TEHRAN: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a cabinet meeting yesterday. – AFP 

GENEVA: If Iran’s oil exports are cut to zero, international waterways will not have the same security as before, its president said yesterday, cautioning Washington against raising pressure on Tehran in an angry confrontation between the longtime foes. The comment by President Hassan Rouhani coincided with a remark by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that Tehran might act “unpredictably” in response to “unpredictable” US policies under President Donald Trump.

“World powers know that in the case that oil is completely sanctioned and Iran’s oil exports are brought down to zero, international waterways can’t have the same security as before,” Rouhani said while meeting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to Khamenei’s official website. “So unilateral pressure against Iran can’t be to their advantage and won’t guarantee their security in the region and the world.”

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have risen since the Trump administration last year quit an international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and began to ratchet up sanctions. Tehran has denounced the new penalties as “economic warfare”. In a speech at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Zarif appeared to echo Rouhani’s tone. “Mutual unpredictability will lead to chaos. President Trump cannot expect to be unpredictable and expect others to be predictable. Unpredictability will lead to mutual unpredictability and unpredictability is chaotic,” Zarif said.

Global commodity trading has been rocked in recent months after a series of attacks on international merchant vessels, which the United States has blamed on Iran, and an Iranian seizure of a British oil tanker. Tehran has denied accusations that it was behind attacks on six tankers in May and June. Washington, which has by far the strongest Western naval contingent in the Gulf, has been calling for its allies to join it in an operation to guard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital gateway for the world’s oil industry.

So far, Britain, Bahrain and Australia have joined the US-led security mission to protect merchant vessels travelling through key Middle East waterways. “This destabilizing behavior is a threat to Australia’s interests in the region,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference in Canberra yesterday. “Our contribution will be limited in scope and it will be time-bound.” Morrison said Australia would send a P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane to the Middle East for one month before the end of 2019, while an Australian frigate would be deployed for six months from January. Australia is a staunch ally of the United States, which in recent months has urged partners to do more for global security.

Reiterating Iran’s chilly response to the security mission, Iranian Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, a deputy commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards, said no one can secure the Gulf other than Iran and countries of the region, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. “Securing the Persian Gulf is the responsibility of Iran and the countries of the region,” Fadavi said. “Other than us, no one can secure the Persian Gulf.”

Erik Hanell, owner of the British-flagged tanker detained by Iran while entering the Gulf, met Zarif in Stockholm on Aug 20 to make the case for the ship and its crew to be freed. The Stena Impero was diverted to an Iranian port on July 19, two weeks after Britain detained an Iranian tanker off the territory of Gibraltar. That ship was released this week. “A constructive dialogue was had and we shared information around the case,” Hanell, chief executive of Stena Bulk, said in a statement yesterday. “It was important for us to emphasize the importance of the release of the 23 crew…Also for the release of the Swedish-owned vessel Stena Impero.”

Meanwhile, the Iranian tanker that has sparked a diplomatic row pitting Tehran against Washington and London is too big to dock in Greece, the country’s junior foreign minister said yesterday. “This is a very large crude carrier, it is over 130,000 tons… It cannot access any Greek dock,” junior foreign minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told Ant1 TV. Varvitsiotis said the Greek government had “faced pressure” from US authorities over the vessel but insisted that Athens “has sent a clear message that we would not wish to facilitate the transport of this oil to Syria under any circumstances.”

The British Royal Marines seized the ship on July 4 off British territory Gibraltar on suspicion it was transporting oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions, triggering a sharp deterioration in relations between Tehran and London. Iran has repeatedly denied any violations. The incident has come at a difficult time for Greece’s new conservative government which was elected just over a month ago.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ office yesterday said the PM is expected to visit Washington “soon”, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to visit Greece in the autumn, Varvitsiotis said. Greece must also tread carefully as its influential shipping sector does major business in the Arabian Gulf. Varvitsiotis said Athens was not in contact with Tehran over the tanker, which was originally called Grace 1 but has been renamed the Adrian Darya, and had received no request from Iran.

The website Marine Traffic, which earlier this week gave the ship’s reported destination as the Greek port of Kalamata, had placed the supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of oil some 100 km northwest of the Algerian port of Oran. The maritime tracker says the tanker is expected to arrive in Kalamata on Monday, but Varvitsiotis suggested it may not dock in Greek waters at all. “It has named Kalamata as its port of destination but this doesn’t mean anything,” adding: “It could drop anchor somewhere” else. “It could unload the oil at any non-EU refinery. It could head south” to North Africa, he added.

Separately, an Iranian oil tanker has broken down in the Red Sea near Saudi Arabia but its crew are safe and carrying out repairs, the oil ministry’s website said yesterday. The HELM suffered a “technical fault” about 120 km north of the Saudi port of Yanbu on Tuesday, the ministry’s website said, citing the National Iranian Tanker Company. “The crew of the tanker are busy fixing the defect and the vessel is in a stable situation from a safety standpoint,” the NITC’s technical director Akbar Jabalameli was quoted as saying. The crew of the tanker was safe and “in full readiness to solve the problem”, he added.

TankerTrackers.com, which monitors ship movements, said the HELM was carrying 1.3 million barrels of crude oil and heading towards the Suez Canal from the Iranian island of Kharg. The vessel appears on the US Treasury’s website in a list of entities subject to American sanctions. It is the second such Iranian breakdown in recent months after the tanker Happiness 1 was forced to seek repairs in the Saudi port of Jeddah port that reportedly cost the Islamic republic $10 million. – Agencies