UK Foreign Secretary Accuses Iran of Attempting to "Seize" Tanker

IRGC attack boats during a drill (file image)

Published Jul 12, 2019 6:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

In an op-ed published Friday, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt accused Iran of attempting to "seize a British ship" during the recent encounter between the frigate HMS Montrose and Iranian IRGC patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz.

According to British and American sources, the Montrose successfully intervened in an Iranian attempt to approach the UK-owned tanker British Heritage earlier this week. The IRGC and Iran's political leadership have denied that the incident occurred. 

In response to the incident, Hunt called for increasing the strength of the Royal Navy, asserting that the UK has "run down its navy too much." Hunt, who is in the running to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, promised to expand the fleet if he is selected for the post.

The UK Ministry of Defense previously described the Iranian action as an attempt to "impede" the tanker's passage. Some analysts suggest that despite strident Iranian warnings, the IRGC's intent was to make a show of force, not to actually board, seize or fire upon the vessel - any of which could be taken as an act of war.

"It would be highly unlikely for Iran to persist in any attempt to detain a vessel in international waters or to engage a vessel with weapons. Any action of this nature would significantly compromise ongoing Iranian diplomatic efforts as well as significantly increase the likelihood of direct military action against Iran," noted maritime security consultancy Dryad Global in a client advisory. "Furthermore, it remains in line with pre-existing assessments that IRGC(N) units would attempt to continue to conduct harassing activities towards commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz in light of increased regional tensions."

A squad of Royal Marines seized an Iranian-controlled VLCC in waters near Gibraltar on July 4, leading Iran's political leaders to threaten retaliation - potentially including an action against a British tanker. The UK Ministry of Defense said that it would soon dispatch the destroyer HMS Duncan to the Persian Gulf to join Montrose. The Duncan is the last in the series of six advanced Type 45 destroyers, and she is presently operating in the Mediterranean. "This will ensure that the UK alongside international partners can continue to support freedom of navigation for vessels transiting through this vital shipping lane," the UK Ministry of Defense said in a statement. 

Armed guards not advised

The International Chamber of Shipping has warned vessel operators not to hire armed private maritime security contractors (PMSCs) to ride along on voyages through the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. Regulations in the region are different than those for the international waters of the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, where PMSCs are commonly employed as a deterrent to piracy. The presence of arms aboard a vessel in the Persian Gulf may violate local laws, shipping associations warned. 

“The message is do not use private armed guards in these waters - it is not advised,” ICS secretary general Guy Platten told Reuters. Instead, ICS suggested that unarmed maritime security advisors may be more useful as supplementary lookouts during voyages through the region.