US intensifies air patrols in Strait of Hormuz after seizure

British FM warns Iran of ‘serious consequences’ if UK-flagged tanker not freed

Jeremy Hunt says UK using diplomatic, not military options to seek ship’s release; owner of second vessel detained by Iranian Guards says it has been set loose

Conservative party leadership candidate and UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt gives a speech during a Conservative leadership hustings at ExCel Centre in London, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Conservative party leadership candidate and UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt gives a speech during a Conservative leadership hustings at ExCel Centre in London, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Friday there would be “serious consequences” if Iran did not swiftly release a UK-flagged oil tanker it detained in the Strait of Hormuz, the Stena Impero.

Hunt earlier said Iran had seized two vessels, one of which was the Liberian-flagged Mesdar. The British owner of Mesdar said the ship had been temporarily boarded by armed personnel, but later allowed to leave.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards acknowledged detaining the British tanker, saying it broke “international maritime rules” in the highly sensitive waterway.

“This is completely unacceptable,” Hunt said. “Freedom of navigation must be maintained. We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences.”

He said Britain was not considering military options and was hoping to secure the tanker’s release through diplomatic means.

“But we are very clear that it must be resolved,” he said, adding that he spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the incident and would soon speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, gestures toward the British delegation as he welcomes Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt for their meeting in Tehran, Iran, November 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The seizing of the British tanker marked perhaps the most significant escalation since tensions between Iran and the West began rising in May. At that time, the US announced it was dispatching an aircraft carrier and additional troops to the Middle East, citing unspecified threats posed by Iran.

The ongoing showdown has caused jitters around the globe, with each maneuver bringing fear that any misunderstanding or misstep by either side could lead to war.

Details of what took place Friday remained sketchy after Iran reported that it had seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The straight at the mouth of the Persian Gulf is a shipping channel for one-fifth of all global crude exports.

The Stena Impero was taken to an Iranian port because it was not complying with “international maritime laws and regulations,” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard declared.

A statement from Stena Bulk, which owns the seized tanker, said it was unable to make contact with the ship after it was approached by unidentified vessels and a helicopter in international waters.

The company said the tanker had 23 crew members of various nationalities and there were no reports that any of them were injured.

In this undated photo issued July 19, 2019, by Stena Bulk, showing the British oil tanker Stena Impero at unknown location, which is believed to have been captured by Iran. (Stena Bulk via AP)

The UK has featured prominently in the recent tensions with Iran. Britain’s Royal Marines assisted in the seizure of an Iranian oil supertanker on July 4 by Gibraltar, a British overseas territory off the southern coast of Spain.

Britain said it would release the vessel if Iran could prove it was not breaching European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.

Gibraltar’s government said Friday that its Supreme Court had extended by 30 days the detention of the Panama-flagged Grace 1, which was loaded with over 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil.

UK Chamber of Shipping chief executive Bob Sanguinetti said the seizure of the Stena Impero represented a severe escalation of tensions in the Gulf and made it clear that merchant vessels urgently needed more protection.

The British government should do “whatever is necessary” to ensure the safe and swift return of the ship’s crew, Sanguinetti said.

US President Donald Trump talks to the press before departing from the South Lawn of the White House on July 19, 2019, in Washington, DC (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

US President Donald Trump said US officials would talk with Britain about the unfolding crisis.

“This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: Trouble, nothing but trouble,” he said.

Central Command said the US has intensified air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz in response to the seizure.

A Central Command spokesman, Lt. Col. Earl Brown, said a small number of additional patrol aircraft are flying in international airspace to monitor the situation.

The incident came a day after Washington claimed that a US warship downed an Iranian drone in the strait. Iran denied that it lost an aircraft in the area.

On June 20, Iran shot down an American drone in the same waterway, and Trump came close to retaliating but called off an airstrike at the last moment.

Tensions in the region have been escalating since Trump withdrew the US last year from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Iran, including its oil exports. The sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard.

Iran’s government has desperately tried to get out of the chokehold, pressuring the other partners in the nuclear deal, particularly European nations, to pressure the US to lift the crippling sanctions.

The Europeans — Germany, France, Britain, and the European Union — want to maintain the deal, but have not been able to address Iranian demands without violating the sanctions. Iran has begun breaching some of the restrictions on its activities outlined in the agreement to put pressure on them to find a solution.

A UH-1Y Venom helicopter takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz, July 18, 2019. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton Swanbeck/Released)

The US has asked Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in past weeks to contribute financially and militarily to a Trump administration proposal called the Sentinel Program — a coalition of nations working with the US to preserve maritime security in the Persian Gulf and keep eyes on Iran.

Late Friday, officials said the US was sending several hundred troops as well as aircraft and air defense missiles to Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. The move has been in the works for many weeks and is not a response to Friday’s seizure by Iran of a British tanker.

Before the British ship was seized, Iran and the United States disagreed over Washington’s claim that a US warship downed the Iranian drone. American officials said they used electronic jamming to bring down the unmanned aircraft, while Iran said it simply didn’t happen.

Maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz has deteriorated in recent weeks after six attacks on oil tankers that the US has blamed on Iran — an allegation the Islamic Republic denies.

There was also a brief, but tense standoff between the British navy and Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels recently. The British navy said it warned three Guard vessels away after they tried to impede the passage of a commercial British tanker that the navy was escorting.

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