The UK seized Iranian weapons, now what? - analysis

After the UK had boarded an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean, Iran seized the British-operated oil tanker Stena Impero.  

 Iranian missiles and other weapons seized by HMS Montrose (photo credit: UK Defense Ministry)
Iranian missiles and other weapons seized by HMS Montrose
(photo credit: UK Defense Ministry)

The UK’s Royal Navy seized Iranian weapons during two incidents this January and February. According to the reports, the HMS Montrose saw Iranian speedboats that were transporting packages containing weaponry. The Royal Navy released a statement late last week about the incidents.

“The seized packages were returned to the UK for technical analysis, which revealed that the shipment contained multiple rocket engines for the Iranian-produced 351 land-attack cruise missile and a batch of 358 surface-to-air missiles,” the Royal Navy said. These included cruise-missile components as well. The US Navy assisted in one of the incidents.

“This action demonstrates that we will not allow irresponsible and aggressive acts by Iran to go unchecked on land, sea and air,” US Central Command spokesman Col. Joseph Buccino said in a statement.

The incident in February took place in the Gulf of Oman. The USS Gridley assisted the Montrose. Cruise-missile rocket engines that originated in Iran were seized, along with the surface-to-air missiles, US Central Command’s Fifth Fleet said in a statement.

“We have a decades-long strategic relationship with the Royal Navy,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, US Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces. “Our continued collaboration on maritime interdictions in the Middle East reflects our extraordinary partnership and a strong commitment to regional security and stability.”

"This action demonstrates that we will not allow irresponsible and aggressive acts by Iran to go unchecked on land, sea and air."

US Central Command spokesperson Colonel Joseph Buccino

A MAN WALKS on a Tehran street this week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared this week that ‘from Sunday we can sell our weapons to whomever we want and buy weapons from whomever we want.’ (credit: REUTERS)A MAN WALKS on a Tehran street this week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared this week that ‘from Sunday we can sell our weapons to whomever we want and buy weapons from whomever we want.’ (credit: REUTERS)
The US has seized a number of weapons over the last year. US Navy warships seized nearly 9,000 illicit weapons in 2021, Central Command said. In January 2020, when Iran tensions increased in the region, UK Defense secretary Ben Wallace dispatched the HMS Montrose frigate and the HMS Defender destroyer to the region.

“The government will take all necessary steps to protect our ships and citizens at this time,” he said at the time. This came within the context of the US killing IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani after numerous attacks on US-led coalition forces in Iraq.

Iran tensions

The Montrose had also been in the region in July 2019 during Iran tensions. This came after Iran mined ships in the Gulf of Oman in May and June 2019. The HMS Montrose issued a verbal warning and aimed guns at IRGC fast boats in July 2019 as the IRGC boats sought to harass the British oil tanker British Heritage.

Iran also used drones to harass ships and downed a US drone as well. Eventually, after the UK had boarded an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean, Iran seized the British-operated oil tanker Stena Impero.

The US has also interdicted Iranian weapons destined for Yemen. Last December, it seized ammunition. In early 2020, the US said it had stopped six shipments of weapons to Yemen.

“In just the past four months, two US Navy ships have stopped two shipments containing a variety of advanced weapons, many of which are Iranian-made versions of Russian designs or Iranian-designed munitions,” Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said during a media briefing last Wednesday, USNI News reported.

“The Houthis have used these Iranian-designed systems to conduct lethal attacks against civil, commercial and military targets on the Arabian Peninsula,” he added. Among the incidents was one in which the USS Normandy stopped a boat in February 2020.

If past incidents are evidence, little will happen next. The UK and the US are aware of the smuggling routes that Iran uses to move dangerous weapons to Yemen. Iran uses Yemen to threaten Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Gulf, but Iranians are rarely held to account. For instance, last year, Iran used a drone to attack a tanker, killing two sailors, but Iran has not been punished.

Iran often seizes ships to wring concessions from other countries, such as targeting Greek ships. Last year, Iran targeted commercial ships it believed were linked to Israel.