latest gulf stories, sunday noon-ish

Iran warns UK against escalating tensions, says crew of seized ship safe
Parisa Hafezi, Reuters, Jul 21 2019

DUBAI – Iran’s ambassador to Britain warned against escalating tensions on Sunday as a UK official declined to rule out sanctions in response to Tehran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker. Britain has called Iran’s capture of the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday a “hostile act.” Iran’s envoy to Britain Hamid Baeidinejad said on Twitter:

Britain’s junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood did not rule out the possibility of targeting Tehran with sanctions in response. Ellwood told Sky News:

Our first and most important responsibility is to make sure that we get a solution to the issue to do with the current ship, make sure other British-flagged ships are safe to operate in these waters and then look at the wider picture.

Asked about the possibility of sanctions, he said:

We are going to be looking at a series of options. We will be speaking with our colleagues, our international allies, to see what can actually be done.

Jeremy Hunt on Saturday said:

Their actions show worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilizing behavior after Gibraltar’s legal detention of oil bound for Syria.

In a letter to the UNSC, Britain said:

The Stena Impero was approached by Iranian forces in Omani territorial waters where it was exercising its lawful right of passage. The action constitutes illegal interference.

The British warship Montrose radioed an Iranian patrol vessel to warn it against boarding the Stena Impero, according to radio messages provided to Reuters by maritime security firm Dryad Global. Allahmorad Afifipour, head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization in Hormozgan Province, told state TV:

The tanker risked maritime safety in the Strait of Hormuz. We are required by regulations to investigate the issue. The duration of the investigation depends on the level of cooperation by the involved parties. All 23 crew members aboard the ship are safe and in good health in Bandar Abbas port.

The vessel’s Sweden-based owner, Stena Bulk, said it hoped to visit the crew, who are from India, Latvia, the Philippines and Russia. India has called on Iran to release the ship’s 18 Indian crew members. Tehran for weeks has vowed to retaliate for the seizure of the Grace 1 tanker by British forces. Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani told a parliament session aired live on state radio:

The IRGC responded to Britain’s hijacking of the Iranian tanker.

State media reported on Sunday that Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said:

The export of oil is one of the issues in which we have limitations, and Pindostan & its vassals have caused restrictions for us, and we have to be sensitive.

He said the country’s oil exports had not been impacted so far by the recent tanker incidents in the Gulf. Oman has urged Iran to release the tanker and called on all parties to exercise restraint and resolve differences diplomatically, state broadcaster Oman TV News reported. An Iranian official commented:

Iran is displaying its power without entering a military confrontation. This is the result of Pindostan’s mounting pressure on Iran.

Navy sends nuclear submarine to Gulf after Iran seizes British oil tanker
Marco Giannangeli, Sunday Express, Jul 21 2019

As tensions rose in the region, sources stressed that the Astute-class submarine would perform a purely defensive role, using its sophisticated covert electronic intelligence gathering equipment to safeguard British and international shipping. Last night Iran increased its provocation by publishing images of the IRGC Quds Force abseiling from helicopters to board the tanker. It is a mirror of images released two weeks ago by Britain showing Royal Marines descending on Grace 1, an Iranian tanker suspected of carrying oil to Syria. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said UK vessels “must and will be protected.” During an emergency call with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Hunt said:

I expressed extreme disappointment that having assured me last Saturday Iran wanted to de-escalate the situation they have behaved in the opposite way. This has to be about actions, not words, if we are to find a way through. British shipping must and will be protected.

The 7,400-ton submarine, one of Britain’s newest, will be able to plot movements and voice transmissions from 200 miles away. Its electronic warfare suite can intercept and download all conversations with specialist linguists onboard. They can evaluate the transmission and report back to naval headquarters, Sources say it will focus its attention on the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and the flotilla of so-called midget submarines which pose an increasing threat to international shipping along the Strait of Hormuz. A senior Royal Navy source said last night:

We are sending a boat. It may well already be heading for the region. Its role is a covert intelligence posture, simply gathering information to support the planned escort convoys of tankers. The Astute class commands a significant electronic warfare capability, and does not actually need to be sat in the Gulf to be effective.

Last night Defence Sec Penny Mordaunt confirmed that a Royal Navy frigate was just an hour away when Iranian forces took control of the British-flagged Stena Impero in what she described as a “hostile act.” Hunt rejected claims by Tehran that it had performed a “tit-for-tat” act to the British impounding of the Grace 1 supertanker, saying:

Nothing could be further from the truth. Grace 1 was detained legally in Gibraltarian waters because it was carrying oil against EU sanctions to Syria. The Stena Impero was seized in Omani waters in clear contravention of international law. It was then forced to sail into Iran. This is totally and utterly unacceptable.

Senior shipping sources have rejected Iranian claims that the Stena Impero collided with a fishing boat and had been seized as part of an investigation, saying:

There is absolutely no credible evidence to support these claims, just as Iran’s earlier position that the vessel had been in Iranian waters bears no link to reality.

Last night, former foreign sec Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the time had come for multinational convoys to protect shipping through the region. Britain has already increased its maritime presence. The Type 23 frigate Kent, will sail from Portsmouth in early September, boosting the Royal Navy force to nine. The support ship Wave Knight last night arrived off Gibraltar, en route to join the Montrose and a squadron of mine clearance vessels also heading for the Gulf. Four Royal Navy mine-hunters already in the Gulf on a three-year deployment have now been further tasked with escort duties. On Friday, intelligence intercepts picked up orders by IRGC commanders to increase heavy artillery within shelling range of the Stena Impero, and to construct a new “holding centre,” sources said last night. Iran is thought to have 2,000 fast attack craft. But it is midget submarines that are the biggest threat, said former Royal Navy Commander Tom Sharpe. Commander Sharpe said:

The Yono midget submarine is a particular menace. Often lurking just below the surface in the middle of the traffic separation system, they are armed with a couple of heavyweight torpedoes. These will kill a frigate, and possibly even a carrier. There are always a couple at sea and they are hard to track and even harder to defeat.

Last night former international development secretary Priti Patel, now a member of the foreign affairs select committee, said:

The level of hostility that we’ve been seeing from the Iranian regime over a period of time should concern us. Despite efforts by Britain, there is normalisation whatsoever. These are the techniques and tactics that have been associated with the Iranian regime for decades. We are seeing the essential international rules-based system jeopardised. We are being played. While our response must be measured, it is surely time to have more uncomfortable discussions about where we go from here.

James Rogers at the Henry Jackson Society said:

Britain has aligned itself with the EU on the nuclear deal and Iran. We are trying to chart a course between the EU line and placate Pindostan at the same time. But Iran is trying to push us off this tightrope and, largely, they are succeeding. The timing for these acts is significant. The UK appears weak because of domestic issues. There will shortly be a new government and the current one is about to leave. The issue now is whether the EU framework for dealing with Iran is the right one that will work. These latest actions are clear evidence that it’s not working. Allowing it to be targeted without responding merely compounds our weakness and compounds that perception around the world. Our next government must reconsider its position. We need to free the tanker, prevent additional vessels being taken or derailed from their journey and this requires larger presence from Royal Navy and potentially the use of convoys. This is about freedom of navigation.

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