Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, officials in London said, in a move that further raised tensions and infuriated American and British leaders.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said it had seized British oil tanker Stena Impero, claiming it “was confiscated by the Revolutionary Guards at the request of Hormozgan Ports and Maritime Organization when passing through the Strait of Hormuz, for failing to respect international maritime rules.”
US officials told CNN there were indications that Iran had seized a second vessel, the Liberian tanker MV Mesdar. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that Masdar had been detained by Iranian forces but was released and left Iranian waters.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed that two ships had been seized, condemning the incidents as “unacceptable” and saying he was “extremely concerned” by the incidents.
“I’m extremely concerned by the seizure of two naval vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz,” he said in a statement. “These seizures are unacceptable.”
The government was to hold an emergency ministerial meeting later on Friday “to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels,” Hunt said.
Britain’s ambassador in Tehran was in contact with Iranian authorities “to resolve the situation,” he added.
Hunt later warned of “serious consequences” if the ships were not released.
“We will respond in a way is considered but robust, and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences,” he was quoted saying by Sky News.
“We’re not looking at military options, we are a looking at diplomatic way to resolve the situation,” he added.
Britain confirmed that one of the boats seized was British registered. The other was Liberian-flagged, but reported to be owned by British company Norbulk Shipping.
Fars reported the Liberian-flagged tanker was briefly detained in the Strait of Hormuz and given a notice to comply with environmental regulations before being allowed to continue on its way.
The UK is “urgently seeking further information and assessing the situation following reports of an incident in the Gulf,” a British government spokesperson said.
Asked about the latest incident as he departed the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters “We will talk to the UK. We’ll be working with the UK.”
He added: “This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran. Trouble. Nothing but trouble. It goes to show you I was right about Iran.”
The US accused Iran of “escalatory violence,” with National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis saying: “The US will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran’s malign behavior.”
The Swedish owners of the Stena Impero said the vessel had come under “attack” in the Strait of Hormuz.
Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management said in a statement that it “can confirm that… our managed vessel Stena Impero was attacked by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter while transiting the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters.”
“We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now tracking as heading north towards Iran,” it said.
UK Chamber of Shipping CEO Bob Sanguinetti said the seizure of a British oil tanker by Iranian forces represents an escalation in tensions in the Persian Gulf that makes it clear more protection for merchant vessels is urgently needed.
He said the action was “in violation of international regulations which protect ships and their crews as they go about their legitimate business in international waters.”
He called on the British government to do “whatever is necessary” to ensure the safe and swift return of the ship’s crew.
The announcement by the Guards came hours after the British territory of Gibraltar’s Supreme Court ruled that a seized Iranian tanker suspected of breaching sanctions by shipping oil to Syria can be detained for 30 more days.
The Grace 1 supertanker, carrying 2.1 million barrels of oil, was intercepted by British Royal Marines and Gibraltar’s police on July 4 as it transited through waters claimed by Gibraltar, which is located on Spain’s southern tip.
Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said Thursday he had had a “constructive and positive” meeting with Iranian officials in London aimed at defusing tensions around the detention of the tanker in the British territory’s waters.
Gibraltar and US officials believed the tanker was destined for Syria to deliver oil, in violation of separate sets of EU and US sanctions.
Iran has reacted with fury to what it termed “piracy” and warned it would not let the interception go unanswered.
Last week, a British warship in the Gulf warned off armed Iranian boats that tried to stop a UK supertanker. London has since announced the deployment of two more warships to the Gulf region for the coming months.
The Gibraltar court ruling comes as tensions in the Gulf region mounted Friday after Washington said an Iranian drone was destroyed after threatening a US naval vessel at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.
It was believed to be the first US military engagement with Iran following a series of increasingly serious incidents. Iran has denied losing any drones.
On Thursday the Guards said they’d seized a foreign tanker accused of smuggling oil. The vessel appeared to be a United Arab Emirates-based tanker that had disappeared off trackers in Iranian territorial waters.
Iran’s state television did not identify the seized vessel or nationalities of the crew, but said it was intercepted on Sunday. It said the oil tanker had 12 foreign crew members on board and was involved in smuggling some 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel from Iranian smugglers to foreign customers.