Iran fails in attempt to ‘impede’ British oil tanker
UK embroiled in the ongoing oil tanker confrontations with Tehran
The UK has been caught up in the ever-escalating international hostility with Iran that has seen oil tankers emerge as the latest proxy for wider tensions.
CNN reported early this morning that armed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats unsuccessfully tried to stop a British Heritage oil tanker in the strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday, according to two US officials.
“The UK's Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose had been escorting the tanker from the rear. It trained its deck guns on the Iranians and gave them a verbal warning to back away, which they did,” said the broadcaster.
The UK government later confirmed that the Iranian vessels illegally “attempted to impede” the passage of the commercial vessel, forcing the HMS Montrose to “position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away”.
It added: “We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.”
Tehran has denied trying to stop the tanker.
Seizure in Gibraltar
The developments follow last week’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker by Royal Marines off the British overseas territory Gibraltar, acting on a tip from US intelligence. The tanker, called Grace 1, was accused of heading to Syria from Iran, loaded to capacity with crude oil, reports Reuters.
The Independent says “tracking data showed that the tanker made a slow trip around the southern tip of Africa, instead of taking Egypt’s Suez Canal, a quicker route to reach the Mediterranean. It was documented as loading fuel oil in the Iraqi port of Basra in December, though Basra did not list it as being in port and its tracking system was switched off.”
The BBC adds that “a team of about 30 marines, from 42 Commando, were flown from the UK to Gibraltar to help, at the request of the Gibraltar government”.
It notes, however, that “while Britain has been keen to suggest it was an operation led by the Gibraltar government, it appears the intelligence came from the US”.
The seizure prompted threats from Iran.
Initially, the British ambassador in Tehran, Robert Macaire, was summoned over what Iran's foreign ministry deemed an “act of piracy”.
On Tuesday, the Islamic Republic’s Major General Mohammad Bagheri said on Iranian state news that the “capture of the Iranian oil tanker based on fabricated excuses... will not be unanswered and when necessary Tehran will give appropriate answer.”
Then, yesterday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani doubled down. “I tell the British that it is you who began maritime conflicts and you should be aware of the consequences,” he said in a cabinet meeting broadcast on state television. “This means Britain is directly responsible for whatever happens after this.”
The Financial Times reports that the Iranian threats came after the Pentagon revealed that it was talking to several countries about forming a naval task force to “ensure freedom of navigation” in waters close to Iran and Yemen. The UK has said it is “continuously monitoring the security situation” in the region and is “committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law”.
Tensions between the west and Iran have been escalating since the US withdrew from a 2015 nuclear accord that Tehran signed with world powers and re-introduced sanctions against the country.
Unlike the US, however, the UK is still a signatory to the nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed in recent days that Iran is now enriching uranium at levels that mean it is in breach of the JCPOA, leading the US to accuse Iran of “nuclear extortion”.