Iran seizes British oil tankers as tensions escalate in Strait of Hormuz

The British-owned Mesdar (above) was seized in the Strait of Hormuz and later released but the British-flagged Stena Impero remains in Iranian waters 
  • Stena Impero was en route to Saudi Arabia when seized on Friday night
  • Mesdar believed to have been hijacked before being released
  • Jeremy Hunt says seizures “unacceptable”, holding a COBR meeting
  • Donald Trump “talking to the UK” about incident
  • Iran says Stena Imperio stopped on suspicion it has “violated international maritime law”
  • Iran claims US shot down its own drone by mistake

A British-flagged oil tanker was seized by Iran on Friday night and was heading towards a Revolutionary Guard base, in a major escalation of tensions along one of the world’s most vital oil shipping routes.

The Stena Impero had been en route to Saudi Arabia but made an abrupt change of course and began moving towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, according to data relayed by maritime tracking services.

The ship “went dark”, meaning its identification system was turned off, at 16:29 UK time and nothing has been heard from her or her 23 crew since.

Northern Marine, a Clyde-based subsidiary of the ship’s Swedish owner Stena AB, confirmed that a “hostile action” had preceded the vessel’s change of course on Friday afternoon.

They issued a statement saying it had been “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters.”

The ship turned suddenly into Iranian waters Credit: marinetraffic.com/PA

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said in a statement that they stopped the tanker at the request of the maritime authority in the Iranian province of Hormozgan on suspicion it has “violated international maritime law”, but did not elaborate. 

There were also concerns about a second oil tanker, the British-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar, which turned sharply north towards Iran’s coast, about 40 minutes after the Stena Impero’s course shift.

The tanker changed course again on Friday to head back into the Gulf, Refinitiv tracking data showed.

Britain said the Mesdar and another tanker, the Stena Impero, had been seized by Iran, making the announcement after both suddenly took up a course towards the Iranian coast.

But an Iranian news agency said the Mesdar had not been seized but had been issued a warning, while the Iranian military said it had captured the Stena Impero.

Tracking data showed the Stena Impero was in the same area where a United Arab Emirates-based vessel was detained on Sunday and where a British vessel, the British Heritage, was blocked by Iranian forces earlier this month.

A Cobra meeting was held between officials from the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and other Government departments on Friday night to determine the UK’s response.

A Whitehall source told The Telegraph of the Stena Impero: “It does look like it has been hijacked. Ships don’t follow that pattern. It turned right and straight into Iranian waters. It is really concerning that this has happened.

“It looks on the face of it as though the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have boarded and taken a UK-flagged ship. It appears to be linked to events around the Grace 1 tanker.”

British authorities seized the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, on suspicion it was carrying crude to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.” data-reactid=”50″>British authorities seized the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, on suspicion it was carrying crude to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.

The fate of the tanker has been at the centre of escalating tensions between the UK and Iran and seen as a pawn in the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, had hinted last Saturday that the UK would release the ship if Iran promised its cargo would not go to the Syrian regime. He said talks between him and counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif had been productive.

However, a court in Gibraltar on Friday extended for 30 days the detention of the vessel, which was carrying two million barrels of oil.

Revolutionary Guards have been threatening retaliation for its impounding and the move would likely have aggravated an already-tense situation.

Tensions have been building for weeks in the Persian Gulf. 

On 10 July, a British warship, the HMS Montrose, intervened to drive three Iranian military vessels that were attempting to divert the British Heritage. 

Iran seized a Panama-flagged ship on Sunday, it alleges, for “smuggling oil to foreign countries”. However, mystery has surrounded the capture as no country has come forward to claim the ship or its cargo.

The vessel, however, was only carrying a very small amount and it had been thought Iran had seized it as merely a show of strength.

The US then on Thursday claimed to have downed an Iranian drone that had been flying too close to one of its navy ships. 

The USS Boxer, an amphibious assault craft, destroyed the drone after it came within 1,000 yards in the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Gulf

However, Iran denied the claims and released footage on state TV to proof it was still in possession of the drone.

The latest incidents will only increase fears for security along the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost one-fifth of the world’s oil passes.

Oil prices rose on Friday night in reaction to the news.

After one of the worst performing weeks since May, oil started the day firmer but slipped as the US and Iran continued to trade brickbats. The later rise initially still left it well down on the previous week. Oil was down more than 8pc this week overall when markets in London closed.  

Iran has threatened to close the Strait if it cannot export its oil. The Trump administration is trying to block Iran’s exports as a way to pressure it to renegotiate the landmark 2015 nuclear deal it abandoned last year.

The UK, which is understood to have seized the Grace 1 after a request from the US, is trying – alongside the EU – to keep the accord alive, believing it is the best chance to stop Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

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Stena Impero ‘surrounded by four vessels and helicopter’

Mr Hunt said the Stena Impero was surrounded by four vessels and a helicopter, and is heading into Iranian waters.

The second ship – the Mesdar – was surrounded by 10 speedboats, Mr Hunt told Sky, though said it was “not clear yet” whether it had changed course.

He said he had spoken to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo this evening about the situation and had tried to speak to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but he is on a plane.

“I will speak to him as soon as I can”, Mr Hunt said.

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Hunt warns of  ‘serious consequences’

Mr Hunt warned there would be “serious consequences” if the situation is not resolved quickly. He told Sky News:

“We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences.”

Asked if he could rule out military intervention, Mr Hunt said:

“We’re not looking at military options – we’re looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation – but we are very clear that it must be resolved.

“Freedom of navigation in the Gulf is absolutely essential. If that freedom of navigation is restricted, Iran is the biggest loser and so it is in their interest to resolve this situation as quickly as possible and we will do everything we can to do that.”

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Tanker released?

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had not captured the Mesdar.

“Despite reports, the ship has not been seized…and was allowed to continue its course after being warned about safety issues by Iranian forces,” the report said.

A spokesman for Norbulk Shipping UK confirmed the crew of the Mesdar are “safe and well” and the vessel has been “allowed” to continue its voyage.

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Is it rash to sail through the Strait?

Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran, suggested the owners of the Stena Impero had been “rash” in sailing the tanker through the Strait of Hormuz.

Speaking to Sky News, he said Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had promised retaliation following the detention of Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waving to the crowd during a ceremony attended by Iranian clerics in the Iranian capital Tehran, on July 16

Sir Richard said:

“With hindsight, it’s easy to say that this was a somewhat reckless act by the owners, given that there was no British naval vessel in the vicinity.”

He said the Iranians had “lost their cool” despite recent “constructive discussions” over the Grace 1.

Sir Richard added:

“I don’t think the Iranians will continue to try to seize British vessels given they have got what they want, which is something to hold in a negotiation with Britain about their cargo held, they consider illegally, in Gibraltar.”

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UK Chamber of Shipping calls for increased protection for vessels

Bob Sanguinetti, the CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, says: 

“We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero as she transited  the Strait of Hormuz earlier today.  The action by those involved is in violation of international regulations which protect ships and their crews as they go about their legitimate business in international waters.

“Our priority is for the safety and welfare of the crew.  We call on the UK Government to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safe and swift return.

An Iranian navy boat trying to control fire from the Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker, said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman in June

“This incident represents an escalation.  Whilst we call for measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region.”

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Donald Trump being kept informed

President Donald Trump said he would “talk to the UK” about the incident.

Donald Trump said he is being kept abreast of developments