Three Iranian gunships “attempted to impede” a British oil tanker in the Gulf on Wednesday, forcing a Royal Navy warship to issue warnings and position itself to prevent any action, the UK government said Thursday morning, confirming an earlier report.
“Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz,” the government said in a statement.
The HMS Montrose, a British warship which had been escorting the tanker in the wake of increased tensions in the area, was “forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away,” the statement said, according to the Guardian.
“We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to deescalate the situation in the region.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Thursday denied they had tried to stop the tanker, according to the semi-official Fars news agency, cited by Reuters.
The statements came after CNN reported that Iran attempted to seize the tanker in the Persian Gulf.
That report said gunships from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had surrounded the British Heritage oil tanker and tried to force it off course into Iranian territorial waters.
According to the report, a US aircraft overhead recorded the incident, but the US military has not yet released the video.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani had warned Britain of “consequences” on Wednesday over the detention of one of the Islamic Republic’s oil tankers off the coast of Gibraltar.
“I point out to the British that you initiated insecurity (on the seas) and you shall grasp the consequences of it later on,” Rouhani said in comments to the cabinet broadcast by state TV.
The detention last week of the 330-meter (1,000-feet) Grace 1 vessel came at a sensitive time in Iran-EU ties as the bloc mulls how to respond to Tehran announcing it breached the uranium enrichment limit it agreed to in a troubled 2015 nuclear deal.
The ship was detained 2.5 miles (four kilometers) south of Gibraltar in what the UK considers British waters, although Spain, which lays claim to the territory, says they are Spanish. It was boarded when it slowed down in a designated area used by shipping agencies to ferry goods to vessels.
“We have reason to believe that the Grace 1 was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Banyas refinery in Syria,” Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement.
“That refinery is the property of an entity that is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria.”
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell told reporters the vessel was detained at the request of the United States.
European Union sanctions against war-torn Syria have been in force since late 2011. The 28-member bloc has imposed sanctions on Syrian officials including government ministers over their role in the “violent repression” of civilians. It has frozen the assets of around 70 entities and introduced an embargo on Syrian oil, investment restrictions and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets within the EU.
The tanker’s detention came just days after Iran announced it would exceed the uranium enrichment limit set up as part of the 2015 deal to avoid it building up to the level required for a nuclear warhead.
Tehran took the action in response to Washington abandoning the nuclear deal last year and hitting Iran’s crucial oil exports and financial transactions with biting sanctions.
The unilateral move has sent tensions in the Gulf soaring as the administration of US President Donald Trump forges ahead with a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran in coordination with its Middle East allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.