The UK’s new defence secretary, Ben Wallace, says the arrival of a second Royal Navy vessel in the Gulf will act as “a safeguard” for UK-flagged vessels in the region, as the stand-off over Iran’s seizure of a British flagged oil tanker continues.
Mr Wallace was speaking on Sunday as HMS Duncan joined HMS Montrose in the region, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the Stena Impero on July 19.
The UK made it clear on Thursday that it intended to escort UK-flagged vessels through the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, overturning its previous advice that UK vessels should avoid transits through the area.
The arrival of the UK’s second warship in the region comes after the British government pledged to form an international maritime task force to help protect commercial shipping interests in the Gulf.
Since Boris Johnson became prime minister last week and replaced foreign secretary and Conservative party leadership rival Jeremy Hunt with Dominic Raab, it is not clear what progress has been made by the UK in persuading European partners to join the alliance.
However there were signs of progress on Sunday in talks in Vienna aimed at rescuing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international accord intended to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The tensions that led to the Impero’s seizure stem partly from the decision by the US under Donald Trump to abandon the JCPOA, negotiated under Barack Obama, Mr Trump’s predecessor.
Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero has been widely seen as retaliation for the detention by Gibraltar, a British territory, on July 4 of the Grace I, an Iranian tanker that the UK authorities have said was carrying oil to Syria in breach of sanctions. Iran has accused the UK of carrying out US instructions by seizing the Grace I.
HMS Duncan will operate alongside HMS Montrose until late August, when HMS Montrose needs to undergo refurbishment work.
Mr Wallace said he was pleased the Type 45 destroyer would continue HMS Montrose’s “fine work” in helping to secure the “essential route” for ships through the Strait of Hormuz into and out of the Gulf.
Mr Wallace said: “While we continue to push for a diplomatic resolution that will make this possible again without military accompaniment, the Royal Navy will continue to provide a safeguard for UK vessels until this is the reality,” Mr Wallace said.
HMS Montrose has so far accompanied 35 vessels through the strait, according to the MoD.
The talks in Vienna involved Iran and the deal’s remaining signatories — Russia, the UK, Germany, France and China.
The accord was supposed to benefit Iran by opening up international trade but has been under pressure since Mr Trump withdrew the US from the agreement last year. In retaliation, Iran in recent weeks has breached the limits on the amounts of enriched uranium it is allowed to hold under the JCPOA.
After a meeting on Sunday, the remaining signatories agreed with Iran to their “commitment to preserving the JCPOA and intention to refrain from further escalation,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
The parties involved agreed that work on two projects agreed under the JCPOA — to upgrade Iran’s nuclear facilities in Fordo and Arak — would continue, the ministry added.