The British government has warned that Iran is choosing “a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour” and advised UK ships to avoid the strait of Hormuz after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker as the crisis in the Gulf escalates.
The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said on Saturday morning that Britain’s response would be “considered but robust” if the British-flagged Stena Impero was not released, although he had earlier said the government was not contemplating military action.
Iran’s capture of the tanker and its 23 crew came two weeks after Royal Marines siezed 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. 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.”
On Friday Hunt told Sky News: “We are absolutely clear that, if this situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences.”
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, a semi-official Iranian news agency, reported it was given a notice to meet environmental regulations.
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 Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said if correct, it should in effect 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.
“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 politicians calling for reprisals over the detention of the Grace 1, while the country’s forces, led by the Revolutionary Guards, are being increasingly aggressive in disrupting shipping lanes in the Gulf.
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.
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, Mohammad Javad Zarif. 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.