The United Kingdom is calling for the formation of a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. The development comes in response to Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker, a move that has escalated a three-month confrontation that nearly drew the United States and Iran into a shooting war.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt unveiled the maritime protection proposal to parliament after a meeting by the government’s emergency committee. He told British lawmakers, “Under international law, Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage – let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy.” He then stressed, “We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region.”
Almost a fifth of the oil consumed globally passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
The British Foreign Minister pointedly said the navigational mission would not involve European military participation in support of the hard line Washington has assumed against Tehran, saying the plan should not be considered as “part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran, because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.”
The Europeans have tried to stay neutral as tensions have risen between Tehran and Washington, but London was plunged directly into the crisis on July 4th after Gibraltar impounded the Iranian Grace 1 tanker on July 4th over evidence it was transporting up to 2.1 million barrels of oil to Syria in breach of E.U. sanctions.
Iran’s repeated threats to retaliate culminated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker on Friday (July 19) as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. The elite Iranian commando force even rappelled to the deck from helicopters, in copied tactics used when the British Royal Marines used to board Iran’s own ship.
Tehran and London remain at loggerheads over the detention of their respective vessels, neither of which has been released. The British intention to form a naval mission to ensure safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz signals a potential shift from Washington’s major European allies -who so far have been cool to U.S. requests that they beef up their military presence in the Persian Gulf, for fear of further fueling the brewing confrontation.
It is unclear how much influence Britain may have in Europe following Boris Johnson’s replacement of Theresa May as Prime Minister, who takes over a country bitterly divided over its impending Brexit departure from the European Union.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has meanwhile warned the West against “starting a conflict.” The top Iranian diplomat insisted that the British vessel was not detained in retaliation for the British capture of the Iranian tanker, but because it had allegedly passed “through the wrong channel.” Speaking from Nicaragua, Zarif went on to say that “Starting a conflict is easy, ending it would be impossible,” adding “It’s important for everybody to realize, it’s important for Boris Johnson to understand, that Iran does not seek confrontation.”