Iran’s seizure of British tanker an ‘act of state piracy,’ U.K. says
Britain will seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran seized a British-flagged vessel in what London said was an act of “state piracy.”
“Under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage – let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament.
“We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region,” Hunt said. He said he would discuss how this would complement U.S. proposals in the area.
After the seizure of the Stena Impero on Friday, Britain will now ask all British-flagged ships to give the government notice of intentions to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, Hunt said.
“We will then advise them as to the safest way to transit, which may involve traveling in convoy,” Hunt said, adding that Britain would also strengthen measures to protect ships flying the flags of other countries but which had British crew.
“It is of course not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship or indeed eliminate all risks of piracy,” Hunt said.
WATCH: Video from Iran’s state broadcaster appears to show crew of seized British ship
At an emergency meeting on Monday, security ministers and officials discussed how to secure shipping in the sensitive region, which is vital to the world’s oil supply.
The meeting came the same day 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 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 it needs to release it and its crew immediately.
He said giving an individual naval escort to all U.K.-flagged ships is not an option because of the volume of traffic. But he denied cuts have made the Royal Navy too small.
WATCH: Hunt says no injuries after seizure of British-flagged ship by Iran
Britain considered a number of options to raise the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran but officials said military operations were not part of them. 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 U.S. and Iran stemming from President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull the U.S. 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.
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.
WATCH: Iran releases video showing boarding of British vessel
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 co-operation. 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 U.S. 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.
WATCH: Iran’s foreign minister says U.S. policy is ‘economic terrorism’
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 U.K. 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 U.K. 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 Persian 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.
— With files from Reuters
© 2019 The Canadian Press