By Alex Morales and Robert Hutton (Bloomberg) –European governments will assemble a naval mission to provide safe passage for ships through the Persian Gulf, after Iran seized a British oil tanker in the region last week, an act that U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described as “state piracy.”
Hunt announced a “European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of crew and cargo” in a statement to Britain’s Parliament in London on Monday.
The U.K. demanded the immediate release of the Stena Impero, and summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in London, Mohsen Omidzamani, following the incident in one of the world’s critical shipping chokepoints. The government threatened Iran with “serious consequences” and advised U.K. vessels to avoid the area, and to inform the government if they planned to travel there.
“Let us be clear, under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage, let alone board her,” Hunt told the House of Commons. “It was therefore an act of state piracy.”
The Foreign Secretary said the U.K. didn’t want to escalate tensions with Iran, which have been rising after the U.S. pulled out of the international nuclear deal and imposed new sanctions. Hunt said Britain won’t be taking part in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, because the London government remains committed to the 2015 multi-nation pact to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
“If Iran continues on this dangerous path, they must accept the price will be a larger Western military presence in the waters along their coastline,” Hunt said. “Not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle Britain and its allies will always defend.”
Tensions have flared in the Strait of Hormuz in recent weeks as Iran lashes out against U.S. sanctions that are crippling its oil exports and after the seizure of one of its tankers near Gibraltar. The Strait accounts for about a third of the world’s seaborne oil flows.
With Theresa May set to leave office on Wednesday, the latest clash with Iran presents a diplomatic headache for her successor, either Boris Johnson, the front-runner, or Hunt, his rival.
U.S. Central Command has announced a “multinational maritime effort” called Operation Sentinel to “increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation in light of recent events in the Arabian Gulf region.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Saturday that the British ship entered the strait from the wrong direction, wasn’t paying heed to maritime regulations and could potentially have collided with other vessels. State television said the ship will be held until judicial assessments are complete.
On Sunday, the Iranian flag was seen flying over the bridge of the tanker in the Bandar Abbas port, according to images aired by state-run Press TV.
Iran has also suggested its actions are in retaliation for Britain’s seizure of the Grace 1 tanker off Gibraltar. A court in Gibraltar ordered the continued detention of the vessel for another 30 days, after it was held on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. Iran denies that was the destination.
In recent weeks the U.K. Navy has escorted some tankers out of the region, while the U.S. said it downed an Iranian drone just days ago. The latest incident cooled hopes that the U.S. and Iran would soothe tensions by entering into negotiations.
–With assistance from Kitty Donaldson and Alex Longley.
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P