The UK has warned Iran that it risks taking a “dangerous path” after the Islamic republic seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and said Britain’s response would be “considered and robust”.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards apprehended the Stena Impero as it passed through the vital waterway on Friday, sharply escalating tension in the Islamic republic’s stand-off with the west. The seizure of the tanker was in retaliation for Britain’s decision to impound an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month after it was suspected of shipping oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s foreign minister, said on Twitter that Iran’s action “shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour after Gibraltar’s legal detention of oil bound for Syria”.
Mr Hunt has also made it clear that the UK was looking to solve the crisis through diplomacy.
“We are not looking at military options, we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation but we are very clear that it must be resolved,” Mr Hunt told Sky News after meetings of the government’s top crisis management body Cobra on Friday.
A second vessel, the Liberian-registered Mesdar oil tanker, was also boarded by Iranian forces on Friday before being allowed to continue its passage. The UK has advised British shipping to stay out of the area “for an interim period,” a spokesperson said.
Iranian officials were defiant saying it was the Islamic regime’s right under international law to retaliate against the UK and US for their “illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers,” officials said.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said Stena Impero had “failed to observe international maritime rules and regulations”.
“Reprisal is recognised in international law and is resorted to when another government commits a violation,” said Abbasali Kadkhodaei, spokesman of Iran’s Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog.
“The correct action by the government of Iran is to retaliate against illegitimate economic war and detention of oil tankers,” he said on Twitter. “This is one of the instances where this rule applies and is based on international law.”
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said “unlike the piracy of the Strait of Gibraltar our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold international maritime rules”.
“UK must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US,” he added on Twitter.
Tension between the Islamic republic and the west has been mounting since the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions Iran. The measures have pushed the republic’s economy into recession and thwarted its ability to export oil, with Iranian officials accusing the Trump administration of launching an “economic war.”
Britain does not support the US sanctions on Iran and has been working with France and Germany to offer Iran economic relief in a bid to save the nuclear accord. But the shipping incidents have complicated its role.
The tanker seizures came 24 hours after Washington claimed to have shot down an Iranian drone that ventured to close to an American warship in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran denied any of its drones had been destroyed, but the incident was a sign of how the rising tensions threaten to trigger a wider conflagration.
Mr Trump last month aborted strikes on Iran 10 minutes before they were to be launched in response to Iran’s downing of an unmanned US spy drone.
Hours after the seizure of the vessels on Friday, the US announced the formation of “Operation Sentinel”, a multinational maritime effort “to increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation.”
US Central Command said it aimed to ensure safe passage and de-escalate tensions in the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait off Yemen.
The US and UK have accused Iran — which has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the flow of oil and petrochemicals through the Strait of Hormuz — of being behind sabotage attacks on six vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May and June.
Washington and Riyadh have also blamed Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen for missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Houthi previously targeted shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb, another vital shipping lane linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden.
Iranian officials said the Stena Impero had been involved in an accident involving a fishing boat and ignored its distress call before it was detained by the Revolutionary Guards.
“Surveys must be conducted on the causes of the accident based on the law,” Allahmorad Afifipour, head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern province of Hormozgan, told the semi-official Fars news agency on Saturday.
All 23 crew members, including nationals of India, Russia, the Philippines and Latvia, remain on the vessel.
HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy frigate, had attempted to assist the Stena Impero but had arrived too late, a UK official said.
A second British warship, the destroyer HMS Duncan, is on route to the Gulf to offer additional protection.
Last week, the Royal Navy intervened to prevent Iranian forces threatening the passage of another tanker owner by BP, the British energy group.
Mr Trump said he would be in contact with the British government to discuss how to respond. “This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble. Nothing but trouble,” the US president said.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, on Friday said it had approved the hosting of US troops to boost “co-operation in defence of regional security and stability.” The US Central Command said the additional troops would provide an “additional deterrent”.