Prime Minister Theresa May chaired an emergency security session on Monday to
discuss how to respond to Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the
Strait of Hormuz.
The meeting of security ministers and officials discussed how to secure shipping in the sensitive region, which is vital to the world’s oil supply.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt plans to brief Parliament on the Friday seizure of the Stena Impero tanker and its crew of 23, now in a heavily guarded Iranian port.
Also on Monday, Iran released new video showing the ship’s crew for the first time, an apparent attempt to show they were unharmed. None of the 23 crewmembers are British nationals but are mostly Indian and also Filipino, Russian and Latvian nationals.
May’s official spokesman, James Slack, said Iran has seized a ship under false and illegal pretenses and needs to release it and its crew immediately.
He said giving an individual naval escort to all UK-flagged ships is not an option because of the volume of traffic. But he denied cuts have made the Royal Navy too small.
“We have the largest military budget in Europe, and we are investing in a world-class Royal Navy,” he said.
Britain is considering a number of options to raise the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, but officials say military operations are not being considered at the moment. Britain is also seeking support from key European allies in an effort to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to shipping.
The tanker crisis is unfolding in the final days of May’s leadership. The Conservative Party plans to name her successor Tuesday, and the new prime minister — either front-runner Boris Johnson or Hunt — is expected to take office Wednesday.
Friday’s seizure came amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran stemming from President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull the US from Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers and reinstate sweeping sanctions on Iran.
Steps have been taken to prevent further incidents in the coming days while longer range options are discussed. Maritime industry publication Lloyd’s List said there are currently no UK-flagged ships heading to the Arabian Gulf and eight UK-flagged vessels anchored there after a government advisory to such vessels to avoid the Strait of Hormuz.
Restoring the free flow of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz is of critical importance to the world’s energy supplies because one-fifth of all global crude exports pass through the narrow waterway between Iran and Oman.
Iranian officials say the seizure of the British oil tanker was a justified response to Britain’s role in impounding an Iranian supertanker two weeks earlier off the coast of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located on the southern tip of Spain.
Britain says the two incidents cannot be compared, asserting that Britain acted lawfully off the Gibraltar coast to prevent illegal oil shipments to Syria that would have violated European Union sanctions while Iran broke international maritime law by forcing the Stena Impero to change course and go to Iran.
Britain says the tanker was in Omani waters at the time, which Iran disputes.
In the newly released video on Monday, the Stena Impero crew is seen dressed in red uniforms and seated around a table onboard as an unidentified Iranian man is heard thanking them for their cooperation. A cameraman is heard telling them not to look at the camera.
It wasn’t clear if the crew was under duress to take part in the filming.
Other choreographed shots show a man checking on the ship, the crew sharing a laugh and talking next to a coffee machine inside the ship. The crew’s chefs are seen preparing food. Another video released by Iran’s state broadcaster shows Iran’s flag hoisted on the ship’s bridge.
As the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers unravels, the US has expanded its military presence in the region, while Iran has begun openly exceeding the uranium enrichment levels set in the accord to try to pressure Europe into alleviating the pain caused by the sanctions.
European nations, which are trying to save the nuclear deal and keep Iran from isolation, have tried to come up with ways to keep trading with Iran but have run smack into Trump’s sanctions, which also target Iranian oil exports.
Britain is adding to its military profile in the region but it does not have the naval resources that would be needed to protect all of its shipping interests. Scores of vessels pass through the Strait of Hormuz each day, where shipping lanes are just two miles wide at its narrowest. More than 400 transits through the passage were made last year by UK associated ships.
In Tehran, some 160 lawmakers issued a joint statement Sunday praising the interception of the British-flagged vessel by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which released video of the seizure, showing Iranian commandos in black ski masks and fatigues rappelling from a helicopter onto the vessel.
Also Sunday, an audio released by maritime security risk firm Dryad Global shows that a British frigate was too far away from the targeted tanker to keep it from being diverted into an Iranian port, despite UK efforts to keep it from being boarded.
In the audio, a British naval officer from the HMS Montrose patrolling the area around the Strait of Hormuz, which is at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf, is heard telling the Iranian patrol boat: “Please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the MV Stena.”
His words did nothing to deter the Iranians.
British officials say the HMS Montrose was roughly 60 minutes from the scene when the Iranians took control of the tanker, too far away to intervene effectively as it had a week earlier when it warned off Iranian Guard vessels during an escort of a British commercial oil tanker.