Britain on Thursday ordered its navy to escort UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian soldiers seized a tanker in the flashpoint Gulf region.
“The Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz, either individually or in groups, should sufficient notice be given of their passage,” the British defense ministry said in a statement to AFP.
Royal Navy vessel HMS Montrose will reportedly accompany ships traversing the strait.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday said the UK wanted to establish a European-led maritime protection force for the Gulf but emphasized that London was not seeking a confrontation with Iran.
“We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support the safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region,” Hunt told parliament after Iranian authorities seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf last Friday.
Hunt also said that a British warship, HMS Duncan, that is being dispatched to the region, would arrive by July 29, joining the Montrose.
According to the foreign secretary, all British-flagged ships would be asked to give the British authorities notice when they plan to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, where Friday’s incident happened, “to enable us to offer the best protection we can.”
But he added: “It is, of course, not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship or indeed eliminate all risks of piracy.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested on Wednesday that Iran might release the UK-flagged ship if Britain takes similar steps to release an Iranian oil tanker seized by the Royal Navy off Gibraltar earlier this month.
“We do not seek the continuation of tension with some European countries,” Rouhani said in comments carried on his website. “Should they be committed to international frameworks and give up their wrong actions, including what they did in Gibraltar, they will receive a proportional response from Iran.”
Responding to Britain’s intent to establish a maritime protection mission, Rouhani asserted that while Iran does not seek a military conflict, it will not allow threats to its security in the important waterway. He described the Iranian seizure of the ship as “professional and brave.”
Both sides have called the interception of one another’s ships “hostile acts” and “piracy.”
The British are slated to meet with their American counterparts and representatives of several other countries in Florida on Thursday to discuss maritime security.
On Tuesday, Iran’s naval chief said that Tehran is observing all US ships in the Gulf region and keeps an archive of their movements.
“We observe all enemy ships, particularly (those of) America, point-by-point from their origin until the moment they enter the region,” Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said, according to a report on Iran’s Young Journalists news site, cited by Reuters.
Also on Tuesday, US Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said that US forces may have downed more than one Iranian drone over the Persian Gulf last week.
McKenzie told a CBS reporter on board the USS Boxer that he believes his troops “successfully” brought down two drones in the Strait of Hormuz, rather than the single UAV announced by Washington last week.
Iran denies its aircraft was destroyed in a US strike.
“We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else. I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own UAS by mistake!” tweeted Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi on Friday.
The incident came less than one month after Tehran downed an American drone in the same waterway and US President Donald Trump came close to retaliating with a military strike.
The clashes in one of the busiest waterways for international oil traffic highlighted the risk of war between two countries at odds over a wide range of issues. After Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and imposed additional economic sanctions, the Iranians pushed back on the military front, allegedly sabotaging Saudi and other oil tankers in the Gulf, shooting down a US drone on June 20, and stepping up support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.