LONDON: Britain on Monday said it was planning a European-led protection force for shipping in the Gulf after Iranian authorities seized a British-flagged tanker in a dramatic escalation of tensions in the region.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made the announcement following an emergency ministerial meeting to respond to Friday’s incident.
“We will seek to establish this mission as quickly as possible,” Hunt said, condemning Iran’s actions as “state piracy” while at the same time emphasising that Britain did not want confrontation.
In a dramatic escalation of tensions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Stena Impero on Friday in the Gulf’s strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The move came two weeks after British authorities seized an Iranian tanker off its overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of breaching EU sanctions against Syria against a backdrop of brinkmanship between Washington and Tehran.
Iran impounded the tanker after claiming it failed to respond to distress calls and turned off its transponder after hitting a fishing boat.
Hunt told parliament the mission “will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement”.
The United States pulled out of the nuclear deal last year.
The foreign minister also said a second warship that Britain has sent to the region would arrive by July 29.
“Seizing the British tanker was a legal measure by Iran,” a spokesman for the Iranian government, Ali Rabiei, told a news conference in Tehran on Monday.
However, Britain has said there was no evidence of a collision and said the vessel was in Oman’s waters, with its transponder switched on.
Hunt spoke to his French and German counterparts on Sunday.
The EU has already expressed its “deep concern” at the move, and on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “We don’t want any further escalation.” There have been a number of attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz since May, when the United States boosted its military presence in response to what it called indications of a “credible threat” from Iran.
Oil prices jumped on Monday on fresh concerns about supplies and a possible conflict in the crude-rich Middle East.
The British government had warned its ships to avoid the shipping channel, a chokepoint for about a third of the world’s sea-borne oil.
Hunt on Monday said all British-flagged ships travelling through the strait should contact the government first “to enable us to offer the best protection we can”.
But he said the volume of shipping made it impossible to protect every vessel individually.
Questions are being asked in London about why the government was not more proactive in protecting ships after the Gibraltar incident, which provoked fury and a threat of retaliation in Tehran.
The stand-off comes at a sensitive time for Britain, with Prime Minister Theresa May stepping down on Wednesday over her failure to deliver Brexit.
Former foreign minister Boris Johnson is the overwhelming favourite to replace her and there have been calls for stronger action against Iran, such as financial sanctions.
But finance minister Philip Hammond said on Sunday: “We’ve already got a wide raft of sanctions against Iran, particularly financial sanctions, so it’s not clear that there are immediate things we can do”.
Iranian authorities have said the crew -- 18 Indians, including the captain, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino -- are all in good health.
Tehran said at the weekend that the fate of the Stena Impero depends on an investigation into its alleged breach of international maritime rules.
Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2019