TEHRAN, Iran — A top Omani diplomat was in Iran on Saturday for bilateral talks after weeks of volatility over the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for a fifth of all globally traded crude.
Oman, seen as a neutral Gulf Arab country that has acted as a facilitator of talks between the U.S. and Iran in the past, sits across the strait from Iran, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The Omani diplomat’s visit to Tehran comes amid a spike in tensions between Washington and Iran stemming from President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and impose sweeping sanctions on the country.
The meeting between Omani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was seen as a possible effort at diffusing a diplomatic standoff with the U.K., after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month.
However, neither Oman nor Iran has confirmed that mediation efforts are underway.
After the meeting, the Iranian foreign minister tweeted that they discussed security in the region, bilateral ties and the “effects of the US’ economic terrorism on Iran,” in reference to U.S. sanctions that also target Iran’s oil exports.
Iranian officials have said the Stena Impero with its crew of 23 — none of whom are British nationals — had violated international shipping laws during its transit through the Strait of Hormuz. But other senior Iranian officials have suggested the ship was seized in retaliation for the British navy’s role in seizing an Iranian supertanker first, off the coast of Gibraltar over violations of EU sanctions on oil sales to Syria.
The Royal Navy helped impound the Iranian ship that was carrying more than 2 million barrels of crude near Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, on July 4. That ship's crew is being held aboard the vessel, as is the crew of the Stena Impero, which is now near the heavily guarded Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The crew are mostly Indian, but also include Filipino, Russian and Latvian nationals.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani suggested this week that Iran might release the British-flagged ship if Britain takes similar steps to release the Iranian oil tanker.
Later Saturday, the visiting Omani minister met with Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, state-run TV reported. Shamkhani said during the meeting that "Iran's action was completely lawful and consistent with enforcing nautical regulations," according to the report.
In the meantime, Britain continues plans to 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.
Tensions have flared amid political changes in the U.K. that saw Boris Johnson become the new prime minister this week. It’s unclear how the new government will respond to Rouhani’s suggestion or the impasse with Iran.
In past weeks, Iran has shot down a U.S. spy drone and U.S. officials say military cyber forces struck Iranian computer systems that handle missile and rocket launchers.
Also earlier, six oil tankers were sabotaged near the Strait of Hormuz.