United Kingdom (HRNW): The prime minister will chair the government’s emergency committee Cobra on Monday after a British-flagged tanker was seized by Iran in the Gulf. Theresa May is expected to receive updates from ministers and officials and discuss maintaining the security of shipping in the area. It comes amid reports ministers are considering freezing Iranian assets. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to update MPs later on further measures the government will take. On Sunday, ministers denied domestic politics meant the government had taken its “eye off the ball”. On Friday, the Stena Impero was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the key shipping route of the Strait of Hormuz after Tehran said it was “violating international maritime rules”.
A recording emerged of radio exchanges between HMS Montrose and Iranian armed forces vessels moments before the tanker was seized. Iranian vessel can be heard telling the British frigate it wants to inspect the Stena Impero for security reasons. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency said the tanker was captured after it collided with a fishing boat and failed to respond to calls from the smaller craft. Mr Hunt said it was illegally seized in Omani waters and forced to sail into Bandar Abbas port in Iran. The seizure of the Stena Impero comes two weeks after Royal Marines helped seize Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar, because of evidence it was carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. Mr Hunt said the Grace 1 was detained legally, but Iran said it was “piracy” and threatened to seize a British oil tanker in retaliation.
Former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC there were legitimate questions over the British government’s actions, after HMS Montrose was too far away to stop the ship’s seizure. He said the detention of the Grace 1 tanker carrying Iranian oil two weeks earlier ought to have served as a warning British vessels in the Gulf needed protection. The Tory MP said he understood the US had offered the UK “assets” to support its shipping and they were not taken up. “This is a major failure and the government has to answer that charge very quickly indeed,” he said. Former commander of UK maritime forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton said the size of the Navy’s fleet had limited the UK’s ability to act. “There is no doubt that the size of the Navy since 2005 – reduced from 31 frigates and destroyers to now 19 – has had an impact on our ability to protect our interests around the globe,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
US Central Command said it was developing a multinational maritime effort in response to the situation. Defence minister Tobias Ellwood said it was “impossible” to escort each individual vessel. He said the situation required “international co-operation” and suggested more money should be invested in the Navy if Britain wanted to continue to play a role on the international stage. The Stena Impero is still being held in the port of Bandar Abbas, in southern Iran. The tanker’s Swedish owner, Stena Bulk, has made a formal request to visit the 23 crew members, who are Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino. They have all been taken off the ship for “questioning”, Iran’s Press TV reported. A relative of one Indian crew member, who did not want to be identified, told the media on Sunday the family was concerned and had not received any messages from him since the vessel was detained. But they said the family was being kept well informed by the Swedish company and felt reassured about diplomatic efforts to free the ship after meeting company officials on Sunday. Although the crew and owners are not British, the Stella Impero carries the UK flag. “Historically speaking it means that the UK owes protection to the vessel,” explained Richard Meade, from maritime publication Lloyds List.