LONDON, United Kingdom — The commander of a British warship accompanying UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tensions with Iran said Wednesday that Tehran appeared to be testing the Royal Navy’s resolve.
William King, commander of HMS Montrose, said during 27 days patrolling the flash-point entrance to the Gulf he had had 85 “interactions with Iranian forces,” which had often led to “an exchange of warnings” over radio.
“That gives you some idea of the intensity… (it) is perhaps more than we’ve seen of recent times,” he told BBC Radio in a phone interview from aboard the frigate.
“The Iranians seem to be keen to test our resolve, test our reactions most of the time,” King added.
“They’ll claim that perhaps our presence is illegitimate, even though we’re completely lawfully in international waters. They may also run boats in at speed towards us, to test what warning levels we get to.”
Montrose, on a three-year deployment in the region since April and based at a British naval hub opened in Bahrain last year, began the escorts through the world’s busiest oil shipping lane earlier this month.
It followed Iranian threats of retribution for Royal Marines helping Gibraltar — a British Overseas Territory — seize one of its tankers on July 4 on suspicion it was carrying oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
Despite Montrose’s presence in the Gulf, Iran intercepted the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero on July 19 as it made its way through the strait and has detained the ship at an Iranian port.
Britain on Monday ruled out swapping the tankers, and has proposed the formation of a European-led naval escort mission for global shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
It comes as US President Donald Trump exerts a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions and stepped-up military presence aimed at forcing Tehran to renegotiate a landmark 2015 nuclear pact he pulled out of last year.
However, amid the escalating tensions King said contact with Iran remained “professional” and “cordial” on the choppy waters of the Gulf.
“There’s a healthy understanding, shall I say a respect between mariners, which now seems to be established,” he added.
Montrose will return to port later this week for pre-planned maintenance and crew changeover, and will be replaced by HMS Duncan, a destroyer that arrived in the region on Sunday.
While the British Royal Navy has been sparring with the Iranians, Germany has expressed reservations about involving itself militarily.
On Wednesday, Berlin announced that it was “reluctant” to join a proposed US-led maritime surveillance mission in the Strait of Hormuz but would consider taking part in a European mission.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was responding to a US demand made public a day earlier “to help secure” the world’s busiest oil shipping lane and “combat Iranian aggression.”
At a time of heightened tensions, Berlin fears that this could potentially draw it and other powers into a military confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
Government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Germany continued to support diplomatic efforts to ease tensions that have risen sharply since US President Donald Trump last year withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
“The USA recently presented their concept for a Persian Gulf maritime surveillance mission to several allies including Germany and asked for contributions,” said Demmer.
“The German government is reluctant about the concrete US proposal and has therefore not offered a contribution, as the overall approach of our policy toward Iran differs significantly from the current US approach.”
Berlin was seeking an emphasis on “diplomacy and de-escalation” and to save the nuclear deal, Demmer said, stressing that “participation in a US-led mission could complicate this issue, even as of course we share the goal of freedom of navigation.”
Germany remained “in close coordination with France and Britain” on questions of maritime security, Demmer said, adding that Berlin believed the idea of a European naval mission was “worth considering.”