Iran’s seizure of two oil tankers — one British-owned, the other British-flagged — in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday dramaticallyraised the stakes in what had already been a week of escalating tensions. On Thursday, Iran said it commandeered an oil tanker of unspecified origin and 12 crew members. The same day, the U.S. military said it had shot down an Iranian drone. The day before, the Pentagon announced that it was sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia, adding to the 2,000 already in the region as a show of force toward Iran. The day before that , news reports focused on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s denial of U.S. assertions that Tehran was ready to negotiate over its missile program.
No doubt Zarif — and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — will be prominent in the coming days addressing the seizure of the tankers on Friday, almost certainly retaliationfor Britain’s detaining of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar earlier this month for allegedly breaching E.U. sanctions. Zarif and Rouhani are the public faces of the Islamic republic, but make no mistake: Little of consequence regarding Iran’s presence on the world stage happens without the say-so of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran’s constitution specifically gives him ultimate power over the country’s foreign and security policy, making him the decider on just about every issue of note.