A Royal Navy warship has rebuffed an attempt by Iran to “impede” the safe passage of an oil tanker owned by UK energy group BP through the Strait of Hormuz, the UK government said on Thursday.
In apparent retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian vessel by the UK last week, three Iranian ships tried to halt the journey of the British Heritage through one of the world’s most important oil transportation routes on Wednesday.
The incident came on the same day that Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, warned the UK that it would face “consequences” for impounding the Iranian tanker last week and will escalate already heightened tensions in the oil-rich Gulf.
“Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz,” said a UK government spokesperson. “We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.”
The spokesman said the HMS Montrose, a British frigate, was “forced to position herself” between the Iranian vessels and the tanker.
The UK’s defence ministry described the three Iranian ships as “gun ships”.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, however, denied approaching any British tankers.
On Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian reporters the British “claims” were “worthless” and only made “to create tensions”.
“The guards’ naval forces continue their vigilant, precise and firm patrols in the Persian Gulf . . . and have not come across any foreign tankers, including British tankers, over the past 24 hours,” said a statement by the naval forces’ fifth zone on Thursday.
The guards added that should there be any order from higher authorities to stop a tanker, the elite force would do so “without hesitation, decisively and quickly”.
Iranian officials have been threatening to disrupt the flow of oil and petrochemicals traffic through the Gulf since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers and imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Iran then threatened British shipping after Royal Marines and Gibraltar police last week seized the Grace 1 supertanker because it was suspected of smuggling Iranian oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
UK officials insisted the decision to apprehend the Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, was in relation to the embargo on Syria and not the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran. But Tehran perceived Britain to be acting at the behest of the US, with Iranian leaders accusing the UK of piracy.
Iranian officials have said EU sanctions apply only to the bloc’s members and not Iran, and denied the tanker’s final destination was Syria.
Since the Grace 1 was seized, the UK’s navy, which has a base in Bahrain, has been providing “maritime overwatch” for British vessels as a precautionary measure, said a defence ministry spokesman. A ship, the Pacific Voyager, passed through the Strait of Hormuz under those conditions earlier in the week without incident, the spokesman said.
The attempt to impede the British Heritage will increase concerns within the oil industry that commercial vessels could become targets as tensions increase. The US and UK have accused Iran of being behind sabotage attacks on tankers off the coast the United Arab Emirates in May and June.
Iran has dismissed the allegations and suggested those attacks were false flag operations carried out by its enemies to implicate the Islamic republic. Iranian forces then shot down an unmanned US spy drone that Tehran said had entered the republic’s territory.
The British Heritage is an Isle of Man-flagged crude oil tanker.
When asked about rising geopolitical tensions in the Gulf at an event late on Wednesday, Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said: “We just have to be really careful about our ships.”
About a third of the world’s seaborne oil travels through the Strait of Hormuz. The US has said it hopes to create an alliance to provide maritime security in the Gulf.
Britain does not support the US’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose sanctions on Iran. It has been working with France and Germany, the other European signatories to the nuclear accord, to save the agreement and de-escalate tensions. But those efforts are being complicated by the diplomatic row triggered by the detention of the Iranian tanker.
Tehran has already increased its atomic activity above limits set in the nuclear accord in a bid to pressure the European signatories, known as the E3, to take concrete steps to counter the economic impact of the US sanctions, particularly its ability to export oil.
The Trump administration’s punitive measures have caused Iran’s oil exports to fall from a high of 2.8m barrels a day in May last year, to below 500,000 bpd, market analysts estimate.
As tensions in the Gulf escalated on Thursday, Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose 0.7 per cent to $67.47 a barrel.