- 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
Two British oil tankers were seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Friday night, in a major escalation of tensions in the Gulf.
The British-flagged Stena Impero had been en route to Saudi Arabia, but abruptly changed course and began sailing towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, data relayed by maritime tracking services showed.
The 30,000-tonne ship “went dark”, meaning its transponder was turned off, at 4.29pm UK time and nothing has been heard from her or her 23 crew since.
A second oil tanker, the British-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar, was intercepted by the Guards about 40 minutes after the course shift by Stena Impero, and was held for some time before being allowed to resume navigation.
HMS Montrose, the Type-23 frigate, was understood to have been dispatched to help the Stena, but was minutes too late.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “extremely concerned by the seizure of two vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz”.
Mr Hunt said he was attending a Cobra meeting to determine the UK’s response and what could be done to secure their release, adding that the seizures were “unacceptable”. He said it was understood there were no British citizens among the two crews.
US President Donald Trump said Iran was showing its true colours and warned that it was in “big trouble”.
Northern Marine, a Clyde-based subsidiary of the Stena Impero’s Swedish owner Stena AB, said a “hostile action” had preceded the vessel’s change of course on Friday afternoon. The company issued a statement saying it had been “approached by unidentified small craft and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said in a statement that they stopped the Stena Impero at the request of the maritime authority in the Iranian province of Hormozgan on suspicion that it had “violated international maritime law”, but did not elaborate.
The head of Iran’s port authority was quoted by Guards-affiliated Tasnim news agency as saying: “We received reports of the British oil tanker, Stena Impero, causing problems, and therefore asked the military to guide the tanker towards Bandar Abbas harbour.”
They said the Mesdar, whose transponder was also turned off, was briefly held and cautioned about “environmental regulations” before it was let go.
Tracking data showed the Stena Impero was in the same area that 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 Whitehall source said: “It looks 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 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.
The fate of the tanker has been at the centre of escalating tensions between the UK and Iran and was seen as a pawn in the standoff between the Islamic Republic and the West.
Mr Hunt had hinted that the UK would release the ship if Iran promised its cargo would not go to the Syrian regime. The Foreign Secretary said talks with his Iranian 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.
Tensions have been building for weeks in the Persian Gulf. On July 10, 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”. Mystery surrounds the capture as no country has come forward to claim the ship or its cargo.
The US claimed on Thursday to have downed an Iranian drone that had been flying too close to one of its navy ships. Iran denied the claims.
Oil prices rose on Friday night after the tankers were seized.
The Trump administration is trying to block Iran’s exports to put pressure on it to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal it abandoned last year. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if it cannot export its oil.
US intensifying air patrols in region
US Central Command says the US has intensified air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz in response to the Iranian seizure of a British tanker.
A Central Command spokesman, Lt. Col. Earl Brown, says a small number of additional patrol aircraft are flying in international airspace to monitor the situation.
He also says Central Command’s naval arm has been in contact with U.S. ships operating in the area to ensure their safety.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.