Iran's Revolutionary Guard forces seize British ship in Strait of Hormuz, escalating tensions

Doug Stanglin, Nicholas Wu, David Jackson and Donovan Slack
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WASHINGTON – Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a British ship in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, adding to escalating tensions between Tehran and the Trump administration. 

FARS, Iran's semi-official news agency, confirmed the capture of the British vessel and said Iranian naval forces detained a Liberian-flagged ship but later released it.

President Donald Trump declined to say whether the moves by Iran crossed a "red line" or how the U.S. might respond. But he noted that the U.S. has a maritime security agreement with the United Kingdom.

“This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: trouble,” Trump told reporters at the White House. "Nothing but trouble.”

Hours later, the Pentagon said it had authorized the movement of troops to Saudi Arabia as an "additional deterrent." The Trump administration announced a deployment of 1,000 troops to the Middle East in June, and a Defense official confirmed to USA TODAY that the troops are part of previously announced deployments to the Middle East.

The official declined to say how many troops would be based in Saudi Arabia. 

"This movement of forces provides an additional deterrent, and ensures our ability to defend our forces and interests in the region from emergent, credible threats," according to the statement from U.S. Central Command. 

U.S. patrol aircraft are in the vicinity monitoring the situation in the Strait of Hormuz, and Naval Forces Central Command has been in contact with American ships in the area to ensure their safety, a Department of Defense official said.

Last month, Trump abruptly canceled a planned retaliatory attack on Iran after the country downed an unmanned U.S. drone, but his administration has kept up a policy of trying to squeeze Iran's leaders with stiff economic sanctions. Days after he pulled back the strikes on Iran, Trump threatened to use "overwhelming force" against Iran if it attacked any U.S. assets or personnel.

Iran announced this month it exceeded its limits set for nuclear enrichment set under a 2015 multilateral agreement that the U.S. withdrew from last year. 

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the capture of British-flagged and Liberian-flagged vessels "unacceptable."

Tensions between Tehran and Washington had already flared this week amid a dispute over claims that the U.S. had shot down an Iranian drone, also in the strait.

Hunt said his understanding was that there were no U.K. citizens on board the British 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," he said.

Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said "this is the second time in just over a week the UK has been the target of escalatory violence by the Iranian regime. The US will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran's malign behavior."

In a statement reported by FARS, the IRGC said its naval forces had seized the Stena Impero tanker and accused it of violating maritime rules and regulations in the Persian Gulf, FARS reported.

The IRGC said the ship had been escorted to the Iranian coastal waters in Hormuzgan province and that control was transferred to the Ports and Maritime Organization "for further legal procedures and investigations."

FARS noted British marines and Gibraltar police had seized an Iranian tanker in early July for allegedly transporting crude oil to Syria in violation of international sanctions.  

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in response, "[the British] commit crimes and make it appear legal,” and vowed that Iran would “respond in a proper opportunity and place.”  

More: Iran says U.S. may have shot down its own drone by mistake

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The company that owns the tanker said in a statement that the vessel, with 23 people aboard, was approached by "unidentified small crafts" and a helicopter in the Strait of Hormuz, Reuters reported.

"We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran," the company said.

It said there had been no reported injuries.

Regarding the drone incident, Trump said Friday there is “no doubt" that a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone, despite Iranian denials that it lost an unmanned aircraft.

He said earlier that the USS Boxer took the action after an Iranian drone came within 1,000 yards of the warship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.

Neither Trump nor the Pentagon spelled out how the Boxer destroyed the drone or provided any video or other evidence from the incident. Several U.S. officials said the ship used electronic jamming to bring it down rather than hitting it with a missile. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record about the event.

National security adviser John Bolton said, “there is no question this was an Iranian drone and USS Boxer took it out.”

An Iranian news agency reported Friday that the country’s armed forces say all Iranian drones in the Persian Gulf returned safely to their bases.

Iran said on Thursday that the IRGC seized a foreign oil tanker, the Panamanian-flagged tanker MT Riah. and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country.

Contributing: John Fritze, Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iran's Revolutionary Guard says its forces seized British tanker