The UK has advised British-flagged ships to avoid all passage in Iranian waters and, “for the moment,” in the entire Strait of Hormuz, announced UK Foreign Secretary to the House of Commons on Monday.
Hunt stressed that the new measures were announced with “a heavy heart” as diplomatic efforts were meant to prevent the necessity of these actions and that the UK does not seek confrontation with Iran.
The UK will also form a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in the region. Discussions will be held later this week concerning how to best complement the plan with a recent US proposal for an international maritime coalition in the area.
The foreign secretary emphasized that the European-led mission would be focused on “free navigation,” and would not be part of the “US maximum pressure policy on Iran,” as Britain is still committed to preserving the nuclear deal with Iran.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was criticized by government officials for failing to agree to a US offer to join "Operation Sentinel," an international effort to monitor and protect naval traffic in the Arabian Gulf region.
While military officials saw the offer as an "excellent opportunity," the Prime Minister's Office "wasn't backing them up," out of concern that the UK could be seen as supporting America's hard approach to Iran, according to a government source, The Telegraph reported.
A government source told The Telegraph that British officials were "embarrassed" they had been "unable to look after our own," and criticized May for delaying a decision about joining Operation Sentinel.
US Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said on Thursday that the US was talking to other countries about freedom of navigation in the Gulf and will work "aggressively" to find a solution to enable free passage.
McKenzie was taking to reporters in Riyadh in a joint news conference with Lt.-Gen. Prince Fahd bin Turki, commander of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.
Asked if Saudi Arabia will have a role in a proposed international maritime security coalition, Fahd said the kingdom has been escorting ships in the Red Sea.
On Friday, the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker was seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces while passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The UK claimed that the tanker was passing through Omani territorial waters according to international law at the time, while Iran claimed the tanker had collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.
The Royal Navy’s HMS Montrose attempted to come to the tanker’s aid and warned the Iranians by radio that their actions were illegal, but it “was unable to reach the scene in time,” as it did not receive “the notice of passage requested that would have allowed her to reach the scene more quickly.”
Hunt stressed that the tanker’s automatic identification system was on and her position was publicly available, contrary to claims by Iran.
“Under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage, let alone board her,” said Hunt. “It was therefore an act of state piracy which the House will have no hesitation in condemning.”
The foreign secretary emphasized that while Iran had tried to present the seizure as a “tit-for-tat incident” after the seizure of the Iranian Grace 1 tanker as it passed Gibraltar, the cases were not comparable as the British tanker was following international law, while the Iranian tanker was breaking EU sanctions as it passed through the waters of a British Overseas Territory.
Hunt said that he had spoken with his Iranian counterpart and the foreign ministers of Oman, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain and Denmark.
In the meantime, the British government dispatched the HMS Duncan to the region to take over from the HMS Montrose and is also strengthening measures to protect ships that are flying foreign countries’ flags but have a British crew on board.
The UK is asking all British-flagged vessels to give notice of any intention to pass through the Strait of Hormuz so that the “best protection” can be offered.
Hunt added that the risks of piracy can be substantially reduced if commercial shipping companies cooperate fully with instructions from the Department of Transport.
“We have taken every available opportunity to reduce misunderstanding whilst standing by our rock-solid commitment to the international rule of law which is the foundation of global peace and prosperity, but we must also react to the world around us as it is - and not how we would wish it to be,” said the foreign secretary to the House of Commons.
Hunt added that if Iran continues on “this dangerous path” then they will have to accept that the price will be a larger Western military presence in the waters near Iran. This is “not because we wish to increase tensions, but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle which Britain and its allies will always defend.”