- Stena Impero seized in Strait of Hormuz on Friday night
- A second tanker, Mesdar, was stopped before being released
- Jeremy Hunt says seizures "unacceptable", holding a COBR meeting
- Government warns UK shipping to avoid area
- Analysis: Boris Johnson could face early test as Iran 'exploits' political uncertainty
- US developing 'coalition' of navies to protect ships amid Iran tensions
Two British oil tankers were seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday night, in a major escalation of tensions in the Gulf.
The British-flagged Stena Impero had been en route to Saudi Arabia, but abruptly changed course and began sailing towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, data relayed by maritime tracking services showed.
The 30,000-tonne ship “went dark”, meaning its transponder was turned off, at 4.29pm UK time and nothing has been heard from her or her 23 crew since.
A second oil tanker, the British-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar, was intercepted by the Guards about 40 minutes after the course shift by Stena Impero, and was held for some time before being allowed to resume navigation.
HMS Montrose, the Type-23 frigate, was understood to have been dispatched to help the Stena, but was minutes too late.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “extremely concerned by the seizure of two vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz”.
Mr Hunt said he was attending a Cobra meeting to determine the UK’s response and what could be done to secure their release, adding that the seizures were “unacceptable”. He said it was understood there were no British citizens among the two crews.
"We remain deeply concerned about Iran's unacceptable actions which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation," a Government spokesman said after the meeting.
UK vessels have been advised to "stay out of the area" of the Strait of Hormuz for an "interim period", the spokesman said, adding: "As the Foreign Secretary has said, our response will be considered and robust and there will be serious consequences if the situation is not resolved."
US President Donald Trump said Iran was showing its true colours and warned that it was in “big trouble".
Northern Marine, a Clyde-based subsidiary of the Stena Impero’s Swedish owner Stena AB, said a “hostile action” had preceded the vessel’s change of course on Friday afternoon. The company issued a statement saying it had been “approached by unidentified small craft and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said in a statement that they stopped the Stena Impero at the request of the maritime authority in the Iranian province of Hormozgan on suspicion that it had “violated international maritime law”, but did not elaborate.
The head of Iran’s port authority was quoted by Guards-affiliated Tasnim news agency as saying: “We received reports of the British oil tanker, Stena Impero, causing problems, and therefore asked the military to guide the tanker towards Bandar Abbas harbour.”
They said the Mesdar, whose transponder was also turned off, was briefly held and cautioned about “environmental regulations” before it was let go.
On Saturday, Iran's Fars news agency claimed the Stena Impero was in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat and ignored its distress call.
All 23 crew on the tanker were now at Bandar Abbas port and would remain on the vessel until the end of an investigation, Fars quoted an official as saying.
"It got involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat... When the boat sent a distress call, the British-flagged ship ignored it," the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, told Fars.
"The tanker is now at Iran's Bandar Abbas port and all its 23 crew members will remain on the ship until the probe is over."
Stena Bulk said the ship was "in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations."
"There are 23 seafarers onboard of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationality," said Erik Hanell, president and chief executive of Stena Bulk. He said there had been no reported injuries.
Tracking data showed the Stena Impero was in the same area that a United Arab Emirates-based vessel was detained on Sunday and where a British vessel, the British Heritage, was blocked by Iranian forces earlier this month.
The move appeared to be in retaliation for Britain's seizure of the Iranian Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar earlier this month.
British authorities seized the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, on suspicion it was carrying crude to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
The fate of the tanker has been at the centre of escalating tensions between the UK and Iran and was seen as a pawn in the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West.
Mr Hunt had hinted that the UK would release the ship if Iran promised its cargo would not go to the Syrian regime. The Foreign Secretary said talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had been productive.
However, a court in Gibraltar on Friday extended for 30 days the detention of the vessel, which was carrying two million barrels of oil.
Tensions have been building for weeks in the Persian Gulf. On July 10, HMS Montrose intervened to drive three Iranian military vessels that were attempting to divert the British Heritage.
Iran seized a Panama-flagged ship on Sunday, it alleges, for “smuggling oil to foreign countries”. Mystery surrounds the capture as no country has come forward to claim the ship or its cargo.
The US claimed on Thursday to have downed an Iranian drone that had been flying too close to one of its navy ships. Iran denied the claims.
Oil prices rose on Friday night after the tankers were seized.
The Trump administration is trying to block Iran’s exports to put pressure on it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal it abandoned last year. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if it cannot export its oil.
Boris Johnson could face early diplomatic test
Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker couldn’t have come at a worse time for the UK - and Tehran knows it.
While Theresa May has days left as Prime Minister, her foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been in the midst of a leadership election campaign to replace her.
His rival, Boris Johnson, is the favourite to win the Tory battle, but the former foreign secretary will be carrying diplomatic baggage if he enters Number 10.
“The timing from a transition viewpoint is awful,” said Dr Euan Graham, an expert in maritime security and Executive Director of La Trobe Asia.
“It could be an instant early test of Johnson’s crisis management skills, or lack thereof, if the issue is unresolved and he becomes PM next week.”
Oil tanker was involved in 'accident', Iran claims
Iranian media claims the Stena Impero was in an accident with a fishing boat before being detained on Friday.
All 23 crew seized on the tanker are now at Bandar Abbas port and will remain on the vessel until the end of an investigation, Iran's Fars news agency reported on Saturday, quoting an official.
"It got involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat... When the boat sent a distress call, the British-flagged ship ignored it," said the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour.
"The tanker is now at Iran's Bandar Abbas port and all of its 23 crew members will remain on the ship until the probe is over."
US official plays down seizure
An American military official has played down the latest escalation in the region, calling it a foreseeable response to Britain's seizure of the Iranian tanker near Gibraltar.
In a discussion with journalists at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Lt. Gen Robert P. Ashley Jr., the top military intelligence officer, said:
“They look for things that are proportional in nature. They aren’t looking to go to war but at the same time they are looking to project strength.”
“They’re not looking to do something that is going to spiral out of control because war is not what they’re looking for,” Ashley said. “But at the same time, their decision calculus is they’ve gotta do something in response.” My story coming soon...— Katie Bo Williams (@KatieBoWill) July 19, 2019
'This is precisely how Iran negotiates'
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, has told AFP that the recent events involving Tehran are "the exact opposite of odd."
"This is precisely how Iran negotiates: the unctuous charm of (Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad) Zarif paired with a punch in the face from the (Revolutionary Guards). They are two sides of the same coin, complementary and coordinated."
Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to NATO during President George W. Bush’s administration, suggested resurrecting a 1980s policy of having tankers accompanied by military escorts in the Gulf.
“We should form an international coalition of democratic countries to escort every single commercial vessel through the gulf,” Burns told Bloomberg in an interview in Colorado.
“The Iranians are an outlaw, they’re acting like an outlaw country, they’re trying to shut down one of the major waterways in the world and then hold us up on it and blackmail us.”
Saudi Arabia to host US forces
The US Defence Department has confirmed that Saudi Arabia will host US forces in the region, saying it would deploy troops and resources to the country to "provide an additional deterrent" in the face of "emergent, credible threats."
The gesture comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran in the Gulf, as well as the seizure of the British oil tanker in the region.
The decision on hosting US forces aims "to increase joint cooperation in defence of regional security and stability and to preserve its peace", the state news agency (SPA) reported, quoting a Ministry of Defence official, without giving further details.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the deployment would include about 500 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, and is part of a boost in the number of US troops in the Middle East that the Pentagon announced last month.
In June, the Pentagon said it would deploy 1,000 troops to the Middle East but did not say where they were going.
Saudi Arabia has not hosted US forces since 2003 when they withdrew following the end of the war with Iraq.
What has led to this seizure?
The seizure of the Stena Impero tanker in the Strait of Hormuz is the latest episode to contribute to rising tensions between the UK, US and Iran in the region.
Here is a timeline of recent incidents involving the three nations:
Government warns UK shipping to avoid Strait of Hormuz
After a COBR meeting this evening, the government is urging UK shipping the avoid the Strait of Hormuz region.
“We remain deeply concerned about Iran's unacceptable actions which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation. We have advised UK shipping to stay out of the area for an interim period.
“As the Foreign Secretary has said, our response will be considered and robust and there will be serious consequences if the situation is not resolved.
“We remain in close contact with our international partners and there will be further meetings over the weekend."
Oil tanker was 'in full compliance of regulations'
The British operator of the Stena Impero was in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations, a spokesman has said.
Iran's state news agency IRNA quoted a military source as saying the vessel had turned off its tracker, ignored warnings from the Revolutionary Guards and was sailing in the wrong direction in a shipping lane.
"There are 23 seafarers onboard of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationality," said Erik Hanell, President and Chief Executive of the operator, Stena Bulk.
"There have been no reported injuries and the safety and welfare of our crew remains our primary focus."
The ship "is no longer under the control of the crew and remains uncontactable", he added.
Corbyn says Trump fuelled risk of conflict
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, responding to the seizure of two British tankers by Iranian forces, said: "The seizure of these vessels is unacceptable, and the tanker that remains under Iranian control must be released. Escalation risks a slide into an even deeper conflict.
"President Trump's decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal fuelled the risk of full-scale conflict.
"A negotiated reinstatement of the nuclear deal through the UN is essential to wind down tensions and defuse the threat of war in the Gulf."
US sought 'coalition' of navies to protect ships amid Iran tensions
Hours before the hijacking of the British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, America's special representative for Iran was explaining its position to diplomats in Washington, Josie Ensor reports.
Some 100 envoys took part in the briefing by Brian Hook, who outlined the Trump administration's initiative for maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz.
Mr Hook said tensions had risen sharply and necessitated the need for a "coalition" of navies to protect their ships through the strait.
US intensifying air patrols in region
US Central Command says the US has intensified air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz in response to the Iranian seizure of a British tanker.
A Central Command spokesman, Lt. Col. Earl Brown, says a small number of additional patrol aircraft are flying in international airspace to monitor the situation.
He also says Central Command's naval arm has been in contact with U.S. ships operating in the area to ensure their safety.
Stena Impero 'surrounded by four vessels and helicopter'
Mr Hunt said the Stena Impero was surrounded by four vessels and a helicopter, and is heading into Iranian waters.
The second ship - the Mesdar - was surrounded by 10 speedboats, Mr Hunt told Sky, though said it was "not clear yet" whether it had changed course.
He said he had spoken to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo this evening about the situation and had tried to speak to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but he is on a plane.
"I will speak to him as soon as I can", Mr Hunt said.
Hunt warns of 'serious consequences'
Mr Hunt warned there would be "serious consequences" if the situation is not resolved quickly. He told Sky News:
"We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences."
Asked if he could rule out military intervention, Mr Hunt said:
"We're not looking at military options - we're looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation - but we are very clear that it must be resolved.
"Freedom of navigation in the Gulf is absolutely essential. If that freedom of navigation is restricted, Iran is the biggest loser and so it is in their interest to resolve this situation as quickly as possible and we will do everything we can to do that."
Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency said Iran's Revolutionary Guards had not captured the Mesdar.
"Despite reports, the ship has not been seized...and was allowed to continue its course after being warned about safety issues by Iranian forces," the report said.
A spokesman for Norbulk Shipping UK confirmed the crew of the Mesdar are "safe and well" and the vessel has been "allowed" to continue its voyage.
Is it rash to sail through the Strait?
Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran, suggested the owners of the Stena Impero had been "rash" in sailing the tanker through the Strait of Hormuz.
Speaking to Sky News, he said Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had promised retaliation following the detention of Iran's Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar.
Sir Richard said:
"With hindsight, it's easy to say that this was a somewhat reckless act by the owners, given that there was no British naval vessel in the vicinity."
He said the Iranians had "lost their cool" despite recent "constructive discussions" over the Grace 1.
Sir Richard added:
"I don't think the Iranians will continue to try to seize British vessels given they have got what they want, which is something to hold in a negotiation with Britain about their cargo held, they consider illegally, in Gibraltar."
UK Chamber of Shipping calls for increased protection for vessels
Bob Sanguinetti, the CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, says:
“We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero as she transited the Strait of Hormuz earlier today. The action by those involved is in violation of international regulations which protect ships and their crews as they go about their legitimate business in international waters.
“Our priority is for the safety and welfare of the crew. We call on the UK Government to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safe and swift return.
“This incident represents an escalation. Whilst we call for measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region.”
Donald Trump being kept informed
President Donald Trump said he would "talk to the UK" about the incident.
“We heard about it,” he said.
"We don’t have many tankers going in.”
"This only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran: Trouble, nothing but trouble," he said.
Trump said "Iran is showing their colors" and "in big trouble right now" because its economy has been crippled by U.S. economic sanctions.
The U.S. has asked Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in past weeks to contribute financially and militarily to a Trump administration proposal called the Sentinel Program - a coalition of nations working with the U.S. to preserve maritime security in the Persian Gulf and keep eyes on Iran.
Foreign Secretary responds
Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said:
“I’m extremely concerned by the seizure of two vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz.
“I will shortly attend a COBR meeting to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels - a British-flagged vessel and a Liberian-flagged vessel.
“Their crews comprise a range of nationalities, but we understand there are no British citizens on board either ship.
“Our Ambassador in Tehran is in contact with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to resolve the situation and we are working closely with international partners.
“These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.”
Crew from multiple countries
Our Political Editor, Gordon Rayner, writes:
A Government source said the crews on board the two ships are “a range of nationalities” but no Britons are among the crews of either ship.
A Conta meeting due to start at 10.30 tonight will be chaired by either Jeremy Hunt or David Lidington.