Prime Minister Theresa May will chair the government’s COBR emergency committee this morning to agree a response to Iran’s seizure of a UK-flagged oil tanker on Friday.
The government has said that that the Stena Impero was in Omani waters when it was surrounded by four Iranian vessels and a helicopter, before being impounded by Iranian forces. The seizure is believed to be a retaliation for the UK seizure of the Grace 1 supertanker off the straits of Gibraltar for carrying Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions. The government has advised UK ships to avoid the Straits of Hormuz for a limited period.
Stena Bulk, the Swedish company that owns the tanker, said there were 23 personnel on board made up of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationals.
The Royal Navy frigate, HMS Montrose was some distance away from the Stena Impero on Friday afternoon but ordered Iranian forces to leave the tanker alone. Questions have been raised about why the tanker had not been offered a Royal Navy escort through the Straits of Hormuz given that Iran threatened retaliation after the UK seized Grace 1. Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood has said that the Royal Navy is too small to protect UK interests, while the government has been severely criticised for its inability to protect UK tankers in the Gulf, with some former military chiefs saying this was attributable to defence budget cuts.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said on Twitter that Iran’s actions were to uphold international maritime rules, in contrast to ‘the UK’s piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar.’ Iran’s Fars news agency claimed that Iranian forces took control of the Stena Impero after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat, although no evidence has been produced to confirm this.
On Saturday, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was clear from a conversation he had with Zarif that: “[Iran] see this as a tit-for-tat situation, following Grace 1 being detained in Gibraltar.” Though according to Hunt: “Grace 1 was detained legally in Gibraltarian waters because it was carrying oil against EU sanctions, to Syria […] The Stena Impero was seized in Omani waters in clear contravention of international law. It was then forced to sail into Iran. This is totally and utterly unacceptable”. Hunt said it: “raises very serious questions about the security of British shipping and indeed international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.”
The Foreign Secretary will give a statement to Parliament later today outlining the UK government’s response. It is thought that this is likely to focus on diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the ship, rather than the imposition of new sanctions on Iran, Iranian leaders or the IRGC.
The BBC reported that US Central Command is developing a multinational maritime effort in response to the situation and it is expected that the Royal Navy will play a part in this initiative.