- Alan Mendoza: The only surprise about Iran's seizure is that it didn't happen sooner
- Analysis: Boris Johnson could face early test as Iran 'exploits' political uncertainty
- US developing 'coalition' of navies to protect ships amid Iran tensions
- Mark Almond: Brexit myopia and a fatal lack of foresight has enabled Iran to put Britain on the spot
- Former head of Navy questions why British ships weren't protected
- Foreign office summon Iranian diplomats
Britain has admitted its nearest warship was one hour away from the merchant vessel seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday and could do nothing to help.
Penny Mordaunt, the defence secretary, said the incident happened in Omani waters and was a "hostile act".
But she said the British Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose was 60 minutes away from being able to help the Stena Impero when it was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The Foreign Office summoned Iran's charge d'affaires, Mohsen Omidzamani, following the seizure of the British-flagged oil tanker.
It came as Jeremy Hunt spoke to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to express Britain's concern over the latest hike in tensions in the region.
Mr Hunt wrote on Twitter: "Just spoke to Iranian FM Zarif and expressed extreme disappointment that having assured me last Saturday Iran wanted to de-escalate situation they have behaved in the opposite way.
"This has to be about actions not words if we are to find a way through. British shipping must and will be protected."
Just spoke 2 Iranian FM Zarif &expressed extreme disappointment that having assured me last Sat Iran wanted 2 deescalate situation they have behaved in the opposite way.This has 2 be about actions not words if we are to find a way through.British shipping must & will be protected— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 20, 2019
Mr Zarif hit back with his own tween, stating: "Unlike the piracy in the Strait of Gibraltar, our action in the Persian Gulf is to uphold int'l maritime rules. As I said in NY, it is IRAN that guarantees the security of the Persian Gulf & the Strait of Hormuz. UK must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US."
Dramatic footage purporting to be of the Stena Impero being boarded by Iran's Revolutionary Guards was released on Saturday afternoon, showing the tanker being followed by smaller vessels and combat troops, thought to be from Iran’s marine forces, being lowered from a helicopter hovering above the deck.
Following a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra, a spokesman said the seizure was "a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation", 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."
Iran has directly linked the seizure of the tanker with Britain's role in detaining a tanker carrying Iranian oil earlier this month.
A spokesman for Iran's Guardian Council was quoted as saying "the rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law" and that Tehran made the right decision in the face of an "illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers".
The explanation, contrasts with Iran's earlier claims that the Stena Impero collided with a fishing vessel in the Persian Gulf, as tensions mount in the strategic waterway, a chokepoint for around a third of the world's sea-borne oil.
Allahmorad Afifipour, the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province claimed the Swedish-owned Stena Impero was in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.
The 30,000-tonne ship 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. It then “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.
The tanker's operator, Stena Bulk, said on Friday the ship had been "in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations", but was no longer under the crew's control and could not be contacted.
Guards say it was taken to Bander Abbas port, where its Russian, Ukrainian, Indian, Latvian and Filipino crew are being questioned.
Mr Hunt said this morning that he was worried that Iran had taken a "dangerous path".
"Yesterday's action in Gulf shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour after Gibraltar’s LEGAL detention of oil bound for Syria," Mr Hunt said on Twitter.
"Our reaction will be considered but robust. We have been trying to find a way to resolve Grace1 issue but WILL ensure the safety of our shipping."
A Whitehall source told the Telegraph: “It looks as though the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have boarded and taken a UK-flagged ship. It appears to be linked to events around the Grace 1 tanker.”
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.
The head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, has concluded that Iran does not want to start a war with the U.S. or its allies.
He said that none of the United States’ major adversaries or competitors, including Iran, China and Russia, wanted to start a war, adding: “The outcome would be very horrific for all."
According to the Washington Post the British government asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hold back from public comments that might further inflame the situation, while London tries to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.
In response to the crisis, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for the tanker to be released, but also suggested the US was to blame for escalating tensions with Iran.
Mr Corbyn wrote on Twitter: "The UK tanker under Iranian control, and its crew, must be released. Escalation risks a deeper conflict, all sides must show restraint.
"Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal has fueled confrontation. Its negotiated reinstatement is essential to defuse threat of war in the Gulf."
Mr Hunt replied: "@jeremycorbyn for factual accuracy the UK flagged tanker was seized following Gibraltarian enforcement of EU sanctions preventing oil exports to Syria...nothing to do with @realDonaldTrump however disappointing that must be."
Why was the ship not protected in face of Iran threat?
British Ministers “failed” in allowing merchant ships to continue sailing through the Gulf when the nearest Royal Navy escort was an hour away, former defence chiefs said yesterday.
Lord Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, said it was surprising measures had not been taken to protect British shipping in the face of threats by the Iranians to retaliate over the impounding of one of their ships in Gibraltar.
Following the seizure of the British-flagged vessel the Stena Impero by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Friday, British ministers are facing difficult questions about the decision to seize the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker off Gibraltar on July 4, without ensuring that it could first protect British-owned shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.
The UK had sent an extra navy ship to protect British-flagged oil tankers travelling through the Gulf last weekend after “specific” threats from Iran.
But it has now emerged that HMS Montrose, a Type 23 frigate dispatched on Friday to help the Stena, was an hour away from reaching the tanker - by which time the Stena had already been diverted into Iranian waters by Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
Lord Dannatt told The Telegraph: “It would have been prudent to marshall out resources in the area to prevent our shipping being seized. We failed.
“It was known that the Iranian would try to seize a British ship and it would have been wise to ensure none of our ships were in danger. It’s perfectly possible to come up with an escort for ships through the Straits.”
His words were echoed by Lord West, the former 1st Sea Lord, who said it had been “foolhardy” and “unacceptable”, for UK shipping to transit the area without a Royal Navy escort.
“We have to run convoys of merchant ships with a Navy escort so we can look after them. It was very stupid of us to allow a merchant ship to go through those waters before HMS Montrose was close enough to look after her,” said Lord West.
“As soon as we seized Grace 1 we should have been aware the Iranians would retaliate. We should have instituted protection measures for the control of merchant shipping and said to the Stena Impero to wait in port until we could escort you through the Stratis with one or two warships.”
Both Lord West and Lord Dannatt argue that while in the long term Britain needs more ships as part of a bigger defence budget, it has the capability to protect merchant ships sailing through the Gulf if they coordinate their movements with the Royal Navy.
They also urged ministers to make efforts to assemble a coalition of allies to provide protection for merchant vessels in the Gulf, something that already appears to have been rejected in Whitehall.
“It needs an international response to look after merchant shipping,” said Lord West.
Their warnings came as senior MPs and Peers said the new prime minister will need to boost defence spending if Britain wants to remain a significant global player.
The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy will warn today that the Global Britain agenda championed by Theresa May's Government was "meaningless" against a backdrop of "reduced diplomatic spending and under-powered defence".
Between 15 and 30 British-flagged tankers pass through the strait every day, with only seven Royal Navy vessels, accompanied by Royal Marines, for force protection in the Gulf.
Critics have already questioned whether the UK confronted Iran by seizing the Grace 1 knowing that the Gulf waterways were not adequately policed.
Chris Parry, a former Royal Navy officer, who now runs a strategic forecasting company, wrote on Twitter: “Why are ship owners dumb enough to sail their ships independently through a threat area? Convoys are needed as in the 1980s to counter a weak Iranian regime that has lost control of the organised crime bosses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. UK government should declare an exclusion zone around all British flagged ships.”
Shortly before the Stena Impero was seized the MoD released a statement on the state of the Royal Navy presence in the area.
It said: “Since 1980, units of both the Royal Navy (RN) and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) have maintained a presence in the Gulf 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“We have approximately 1,200 UK personnel deployed and are committed to de-escalation in the Gulf and maintaining free navigation through the region.”
It added: “The UK regularly reviews the number of RN and RFA vessels in the region.”