UK foreign secretary expresses ‘extreme disappointment’ over action to Iranian counterpart
The British government has summoned Tehran’s top diplomat in London and warned UK ships to temporarily avoid the strait of Hormuz after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker off its coast, deepening the crisis in the Gulf.
The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said on Saturday that he had spoken to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to express “extreme disappointment” over Iran’s actions, and vowed to protect UK ships during the crisis.
“Having assured me last Sat[urday] Iran wanted to de-escalate the situation they have behaved in the opposite way,” Hunt said on Twitter. “This has to be about actions not words if we are to find a way through. British shipping must and will be protected.”
A British Royal Navy frigate was just an hour from the scene when Iranian forces took control of the British-flagged Stena Impero, the defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt, told Sky News. She said the tanker was in Omani waters at the time.
Hunt earlier promised a robust response if the tanker was not released, but said the government was not contemplating military action.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted: “The UK tanker under Iranian control, and its crew, must be released. Escalation risks a deeper conflict, all sides must show restraint.
“Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal has fueled confrontation. Its negotiated reinstatement is essential to defuse threat of war in the Gulf.”
Stena Bulk said in a statement: “Our insurers in the region have been in contact with the head of marine affairs at the Port of Bandar Abbas, who has reported that the crew members of our vessel Stena Impero are in ‘good health’ and that the tanker is at the nearby Bandar Bahonar anchorage.
“The head of marine affairs has asked a formal request be made for a visit to be arranged to the crew members and vessel. I can confirm this formal request is being prepared forthwith.
“Our insurers have also advised that the head of marine affairs has confirmed to them that no instructions have been received so far as to what will happen to the ship.”
The Cobra emergency committee met on Saturday afternoon to discuss the crisis, the second such gathering in under 24 hours. The standoff between the west and Iran has escalated at a particularly difficult time for Britain, just four days before Theresa May is due to hand power to another leader.
Iran’s charge d’affaires, the country’s most senior diplomat in London, was also summoned to the Foreign Office over the incident, the Press Association reported.
Iran’s capture of the tanker and its 23 crew came two weeks after Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar, on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in violation of an EU embargo, and just hours after authorities in Gibraltar announced that they would extend their custody of the vessel.
Friday’s action was widely seen as a response to the seizure of the Grace 1, which Tehran denounced as piracy carried out on the orders of Washington, and Iran on Saturday appeared to make the link explicit.
“The rule of reciprocal action is well known in international law,” Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, told the semi-official Fars news agency.
Iran’s moves to “confront the illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers is an instance of this rule and is based on international rights”, he added. The council rarely comments on state matters, but when it does it is seen as a reflection of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s views.
Hunt said UK forces had followed international law. “Yesterday’s action in Gulf 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,” Hunt said on Twitter. “We have been trying to find a way to resolve Grace1 issue but will ensure the safety of our shipping.”
A second Liberian-flagged but British operated tanker was also detained for several hours by Iranian forces on Friday. The Mesdar made a sudden diversion from its planned course, and began moving towards the Iranian coast before apparently turning off its tracking signal.
Its Glasgow-based operator, Norbulk Shipping UK, confirmed that the vessel had been boarded by armed guards but had then been allowed to continue its voyage. Fars reported it was given a notice to meet environmental regulations.
About a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the strait of Hormuz, the busiest shipping lane in the world for crude tankers, and under 25 miles (40km) wide at its narrowest point. Tensions in the Gulf had already affected oil trading, and Friday’s tanker seizures caused prices to rise.
Tensions between the US and Iran have soared, with Washington dispatching warships to the Gulf, and Tehran resuming higher uranium enrichment.
12 May 2019
The UAE says four commercial ships off its eastern coast ‘were subjected to sabotage operations’.
14 May 2019
Yemen’s Houthi rebels launch a drone attack on Saudi Arabia, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service.
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Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the drone attack on its pipeline.
19 May 2019
A rocket lands near the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, without harming anyone. It’s not clear who is behind the attack, but after the initial reports, Donald Trump tweets: ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!’
24 May 2019
Senior Pentagon officer Vice-admiral Michael Gilday says the US has a high degree of confidence that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were responsible for the explosions on the four tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
12 June 2019
Saudi Arabia says 26 people were wounded in an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on an airport in the kingdom’s south-western town of Abha.
13 June 2019
Two oil tankers near the strategic strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked in an assault that left one ablaze and adrift. 44 sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the US navy assisted.
20 June 2019
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they have shot down what they called a US ‘spy’ drone they claim was flying in in the country’s airspace. The US military confirm one of its drones has been taken down, but say it was in international airspace.
21 June 2019
Donald Trump reportedly gives approval for the US military to launch strikes on Iran in retaliation for the loss of the drone, before pulling back at the last minute.
25 June 2019
The Iranian and US presidents trade insults, with Hassan Rouhani suggesting that Donald Trump suffered from a “mental disorder” and Trump once more threatening Iran with “obliteration”.
8 July 2019
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the body tasked with verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, verifies that Tehran has breached the agreed 3.67% limit for enriched uranium.
11 July 2019
The UK government says three Iranian boats were warned off by the frigate HMS Montrose after Iranian boats ‘attempted to impede’ a British oil tanker in strait of Hormuz. Tehran denies involvement.
18 July 2019
Iran says it has seized a foreign oil tanker in the Gulf. A report on state TV says the ship was smuggling oil but does not say which country crew are from.
19 July 2019
Iran denies a claim by Donald Trump that the US destroyed one of its drones in the strait of Hormuz. The US president says the USS Boxer took ‘defensive action’ against an unmanned aircraft. Tehran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, tweeted: “We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own UAS [unmanned aerial system] by mistake!”
Iran’s official Irna news agency said the impounded Stena Impero had been detained after colliding with a fishing boat, whose crew notified authorities on land. Its owners say it was intercepted in international waters, by four small craft and a helicopter, when in “full compliance with all navigation and international regulations”.
The ship has been taken to Bandar Abbas, one of the country’s main military ports, Fars reported.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said if the report was correct, Britain should rule out the use of force in response. “That’s an important Iranian military port and I think any military options will therefore be extremely unwise,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Late on Friday night, the British government advised UK ships to stay out of the area “for an interim period” and said it was talking to international partners.
France’s foreign ministry said on Saturday it was very concerned by the seizure of the Stena Impero, saying such an action harmed de-escalation efforts in the region. Germany’s foreign ministry said it was an “unjustifiable intrusion” on shipping through a key shipping route and urged Iran to release the ship and crew.
“We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s unacceptable actions, which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation,” a government statement said, following a meeting of ministers to discuss the incident in the strait of Hormuz.
The detention comes at a time of high tension in the region, with US, British and Iranian forces facing off at sea. Iranian politicians have called for reprisals over the detention of the Grace 1.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards previously attempted to capture a British tanker six days after the Grace 1 was seized. On 10 July, a British warship, the HMS Montrose, intervened to drive off three Iranian military vessels that were attempting to divert a UK tanker, the British Heritage, towards Iranian territory.
Why is the Gulf of Oman so important for shipping oil?
The strait of Hormuz, which provides passage from the Gulf of Oman to the open sea, is the most important gateway for oil exports in the world. With Iran on its northern shore, and the UAE and Oman on its southern shore, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) calls it the world’s worst ‘chokepoint’
In 2016, 18.5m barrels of crude oil were transported each day through the strait of Hormuz, compared with 16m through the strait of Malacca, which runs between the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Malaysia and Thailand, connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. 5m barrels of crude oil are transported annually through the next largest chokepoint, the Suez canal.
The battle of nerves along the oil export routes of the Gulf has involved other close encounters between Iranian, UK and US military forces. Earlier on Friday, Tehran denied Trump’s claim that US forces had downed an Iranian drone over the Gulf, although the US president was adamant.
The prospect of a diplomatic resolution appeared to be receding however after a senior US official on Friday dismissed a nuclear offer proposed the previous day by Iran’s foreign minister.
The official suggested the offer, made during a visit to New York, was not serious and called for “an actual decision-maker” to enter talks to “end Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions”.
Trump has vacillated on what he wants Iran to do in return for a lifting of the oil and banking embargo that the US has imposed since walking out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran in May last year.
The sharp response to Zarif’s offer suggests that administration hardliners, led by the national security adviser, John Bolton, are currently running Iran policy.