Hormuz remains hot spot after futile Iranian bid to seize British tanker

The key Strait of Hormuz via which around a third of global supplies of crude oil pass has remained focal point of tension with a futile bid by the Iranians to seize a British oil tanker. Fox News, which first publicized the reports, said five Iranian gunboats believed to belong to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tried to seize the British oil tanker in the Arabian Gulf on Wednesday but “backed off after a British warship approached.”

In London, a spokesman of the Ministry of Defence, Thursday, confirmed that Iranian boats tried to impede a British oil tanker near the Gulf – before being driven off by a Royal Navy ship. HMS Montrose, a British frigate shadowing the BP-owned tanker, was forced to move between the three boats and the tanker, a spokesman said, cited by the BBC. He described the Iranians’ actions as “contrary to international law”.

Iran had threatened to retaliate for the seizure of one of its own tankers off Gibraltar a few days ago, but denied any attempted seizure. Boats believed to belong to Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) approached the tanker, British Heritage, and tried to bring it to a halt as it was moving out of the Gulf into the Strait of Hormuz. Guns on HMS Montrose were trained on the Iranian boats as they were ordered to back off, according to US media reports, carried by the BBC. The boats heeded the warning and no shots were fired.

The BBC said it had been told that British Heritage was near the island of Abu Musa when it was approached by the Iranian boats, however it mentioned no sources. Abu Musa is located some 40 nautical miles northwest of the UAE emirate of Sharjah.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt added the UK would monitor the situation “very carefully,” and Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said the government was “committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law”. Two tankers were attacked in the Strait of Hormuz in June. The relationship between the UK and Iran has become increasingly strained, after Britain said the Iranian regime was “almost certainly” responsible for the attacks on two oil tankers.

Last week, British Royal Marines helped the authorities in Gibraltar seize an oil tanker because of evidence it was carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. Spokesman for the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Bill Urban said in this regard “threats to international freedom of navigation require an international solution. The world economy depends on the free flow of commerce, and it is incumbent on all nations to protect and preserve this lynch pin of global prosperity.”

Meanwhile, CNN said the British oil tanker, British Heritage, was “crossing into the Strait of Hormuz area when it was approached by the Iranian boats.” It noted that the “UK’s Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose had been escorting the tanker from the rear” and warned them off, while also “a US aircraft was overhead and recorded video of the incident”. In Tehran, an official statement denied any attempt to obstruct and seize a British oil tanker traversing the Gulf waters yesterday.

It affirmed that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) continues to patrol the region and will not hesitate to halt any foreign vessel if it enters its territorial waters. In Moscow, Russian Presidency called for securing navigation through the strait and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Riyabkov called on stakeholders to abstain from escalation, warning of a possible flare-up of a major military confrontation in the region.

Situation in the Gulf causes serious alarm, he said, noting that future conditions in the region have become “unpredictable” in light of recurring incidents in the vital waters. The Gulf has recently witnessed downing of an American pilotless aircraft. Iran said the drone was shot down after it breached territorial airspace but Washington said it was buzzing through international skies.

In the waters, there had been a chain of incidents including bombing of an oil tanker. Iran has been reeling under renewed crippling sanctions since Washington unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran and re-imposed the curbs. Iranians officials have publicly threatened that if Tehran fails to export its crude oil no other exporters in the region will be able to sell crudes. It is widely understood that the Iranian oil exports have drastically dwindled due to the curbs.