The UK has raised the threat level for British ships in the Gulf to its highest level of “critical”.
The move follows an incident in which three Iranian boats tried to intercept a British oil tanker in the Gulf before being driven off by a Royal Navy frigate. On 4 July Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker off the Straits of Gibraltar. The Grace-1 super-tanker was believed to be heading toward Syria to deliver oil in defiance of EU sanctions.
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt said the government was concerned by Iran’s attempt and urged the Iranian authorities to “de-escalate the situation”.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said the government was “committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law”. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the Iranian move a “very concerning development” and said the British Government is “continuing to monitor the situation very, very carefully”. Writing in the Telegraph, Hunt said the latest confrontation with Iran in the Gulf showed that the navy needs more funding and more warships and he has promised to reverse cuts to the size of the Royal Navy if elected Prime Minister. Hunt has already pledged to increase defence spending by £15bn over the next five years.
Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, Commander of the US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, described the incident as “unlawful harassment” and said the fleet would continue to work closely with the Royal Navy to defend “the free flow of commerce”.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has denied claims it tried to seize the British oil tanker. It said: “Patrols by the IRGC’s Navy vessels have been underway in the Persian Gulf based on current procedures and missions assigned to them with vigilance, precision and strength. In the past 24 hours, there has been no encounter with foreign ships, including British ones.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the UK made up the claims saying: “Apparently the British tanker has passed. What they have said themselves and the claims that have been made are for creating tension and these claims have no value.”