A deputy commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned Britain that ‘the enemy will regret detaining our oil tanker’ on Thursday, a day after three Iranian vessels tried to seize a British tanker near the Persian Gulf.
The same commander also said that retaliatory actions will be announced against Britain soon, without giving further details.
The UK government says that three armed boats belonging to the Revolutionary Guards ordered UK tanker British Heritage to divert and stop as it tried to pass through the Strait of Hormuz – a strategic bottleneck near Iran – on Wednesday.
The HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy frigate escorting the Heritage, placed itself between the tanker and the Iranian vessels, trained its guns on them, and ordered them to back off – which they did, the UK said.
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Tanker British Heritage (pictured in Rotterdam last year), which is owned by BP and sails under and Isle of Man flag, was targeted by three Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz Wednesday
The British tanker was travelling through the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic bottleneck that sits partially in Iranian waters, when the vessels approached and ordered it to stop
The HMS Montrose (pictured firing a missile on exercise in 2013) trained its guns on the Iranian vessels and ordered them to back off, which they did without a shot being fired
The Iranian boats complied without a shot being fired.
Iran has been threatening to seize a British tanker in retaliation after the UK stopped one of its vessels – the Grace 1 – off the coast of Gibraltar last week.
A UK government spokesman said: ‘Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz.
‘HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away.
‘We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.’
American aircraft were also overhead at the time and filmed as the Iranian vessels approached and then backed off, according to CNN.
Iran denied that it had attempted to seize the vessel, rebuffing ‘claims by American sources.’
‘There were no clashes with alien boats, especially English boats,’ the Fars news agency, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guards, said.
A spokesman for BP, which operates the British Heritage tanker, said: ‘Our top priority is the safety and security of our crews and vessels. While we are not commenting on these events, we thank the Royal Navy for their support.’
It is understood the ship was not carrying cargo.
UK officials had previously confirmed that the Montrose was in the region performing a ‘maritime security role.’
It comes after Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar last week, which Britain says was violating EU sanctions by carrying fuel to Syria.
Iran denies the vessel was bound for Syria and says the UK acted on behalf of the United States, which has separate sanctions in place against Tehran itself.
Tensions around the Persian Gulf have been ratcheting up since the US tore up a nuclear pact signed with Iran last year, but have reached fever-pitch since a series of attacks on oil tankers and the shoot-down of an American drone
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned earlier on Wednesday that Britain would ‘face consequences’ for detaining an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar
Senior Iranian politicians had threatened to retaliate by seizing a British tanker.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said in a cabinet session earlier on Wednesday that Britain would ‘see the consequences’ after the Gibraltar seizure.
In remarks broadcast on Iranian TV, Rouhani said: ‘You (Britain) are the initiator of insecurity and you will realise the consequences later.
‘Now you are so hopeless that, when one of your tankers wants to move in the region, you have to bring your frigates (to escort it) because you are scared.
‘Then why do you commit such acts? You should instead allow navigation to be safe.’
The HMS Montrose is equipped on the deck with 30 mm guns specifically designed to drive off small boats.
The Montrose, based in Bahrain, also has radar that allows it to track aircraft and missiles up to 120 miles away, and a missile system with a 20-mile range.
The BP-owned British Heritage, had earlier halted to take refuge off the coast of Saudi Arabia following Iran’s threat.
Registered at the port of Douglas, in the Isle of Man, the ship is operated by BP usually with a crew of around 25 people.
HMS Montrose has also been in the region since April as part of a three-year deployment supporting counter-terror and anti-smuggling work.
The Royal Navy has had a continuous presence in the region for more than 30 years following the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 in what is known as Operation Kipion.
Operation: British Royal Marines taking part in the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker in the early hours of last Thursday morning
Royal Marines fast-roped on to the deck of Iranian tanker Grace 1 from a Wildcat helicopter (pictured left) as it sailed near Gibraltar, while others approached by boat
Britain has accused Iran of attempting to sail oil to Syria, in breach of EU sanctions against the country which came into force in 2011 (pictured, Marines sail near the Grace 1 tanker)
Earlier this week, British tanker Pacific Voyager, which sails under the Isle of Man flag, was escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by HMS Montrose, a Type-23 frigate, on Tuesday.
The incident on Wednesday took place against the backdrop of rising tensions between the Iran and the US which saw Donald Trump accuse the Middle Eastern nation of attacking several tankers in the Gulf.
A number of tankers in the Strait have been damaged by explosions in recent months – which the UK and US blamed on Iran – and Iran shot down a US drone.
America has begun making plans to enlist allies over the next two weeks into a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.
Under the plan, which has only been finalized in recent days, the United States would provide command ships and lead surveillance efforts for the military coalition. Allies would patrol waters near those U.S. command ships and escort commercial vessels with their nation’s flags.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulated those details to reporters following meetings on Tuesday about it with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
‘We’re engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab,’ Dunford said.
‘And so I think probably over the next couple of weeks we’ll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we’ll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that’ll support that.’
Four oil tankers in the Gulf were sabotaged in May, before another two were attacked in June (pictured). America and the UK have blamed the attacks on Iran
The US subsequently released footage of what it claims shows Iranian forces returning to one of the tankers to remove an unexploded limpet mine from its hull
Iran shot down a US RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, prompting Donald Trump to order airstrikes in retaliation, which he then called off at the last minute
Why Iran is launching attacks in the Gulf
Some experts believe it’s because they have nothing lose. The economy is expected to shrink by six per cent this year, on top of a 3.9 per cent contraction last year, according to the IMF.
In the pre-Trump sanctions year of 2017 however, the country recorded 3.8 per cent growth. As sanction getting tougher, the likelihood is Iran will become more aggressive and less risk averse.
The other major factor for Iran is oil, and this could be their sign of deterrence against the US ratcheting up pressure on Iranian oil exports.
Iran has come to blows with US President Donald Trump over several attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent months
According to Crisis Group, this method of ransoming the oil market could also benefit the Iranian economy by driving up shipping insurance premiums, helping recoup the cost of US sanctions.
Other strategy experts say that the Iranians are trying to call Trump’s bluff by undermining him through small isolated incidents like the tanker.
‘It’s all about careful calibration and plausible deniability,’ Hussein Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNBC.
Acts like the explosion have not resulted in civilian casualties, and so could be a way to force Trump to reveal his future strategy. The President recently told Time magazine that the incident would ‘not be worth’ going to war over.
It could also be taken as a sign that Iran won’t play fair if they are disadvantaged on oil exports. The Eurasia Group wrote in a June briefing that the sabotaging of the four tankers is an effort by Iran to demonstrate ‘peace and security in the Gulf is contingent on its own economic stability’.
The Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway which is bordered by Iran to the north, accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil traffic.
But despite the smart game-playing, these attacks on US drones and ship could still blow up in the face of the rogue state. When Iran was caught laying sea mines in the 1980s, one of which hit a US frigate, half of the country’s Navy was wiped out. Could it happen again?
‘The status quo is not sustainable for Iran,’ says Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute. ‘So they have the means, the motives and the opportunity… They do not seek a war, exactly, but they are obviously willing to risk one in order to get out of an impossible conundrum.’