Royal Navy deployed to escort UK-flagged ships through Gulf

Shipping industry sources say at least eight tankers are effectively stranded in region

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Thursday 25 July 2019 13:26 BST
Iran's state TV releases video from on-board British-flagged tanker seized by Tehran

The Royal Navy has begun to escort UK-flagged ships through the Gulf amid the stand-off following the seizure by Britain and Iran of tankers from each country.

HMS Montrose accompanied two tankers through the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday night and the guarding operation is due to continue when she is replaced by another warship, HMS Duncan, at the end of this month. Other British naval assets in the region will be called upon for assistance if that becomes necessary, according to defence officials.

The escorting project is being coordinated by the Department for International Trade, which is passing on details of the vessels which need protection to the Ministry of Defence. The rules of engagement allow the Royal Navy to take the measures required to protect British lives and property.

Shipping industry sources say that at least eight tankers, including those carrying chemicals, are effectively stranded in the Gulf region since the British-flagged Stena Impero was captured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on 19 July. Following that seizure, the security alert for UK shipping in the area was raised to Level 3, indicating that attempted interdiction was likely and imminent.

Then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, announced earlier this week that the UK was putting together a European naval contingent to guard ships in the waters – one of the most important oil shipping routes in the world.

The project is due to be addressed by the new foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and defence secretary Ben Wallace, and their aides, but contingency planning is going ahead.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Tuesday that: “We are setting up a European initiative with Britain and Germany, to ensure that there is a mission to monitor and observe maritime security in the Gulf.”

He stopped short, however, of backing the British call for the deployment of naval forces, saying it would be an “observation” mission for the purpose of “de-escalation”.

Mr Hunt had offered to secure the release of the Iranian-owned tanker Grace 1, which was boarded by Royal Marines earlier in July, in return for a pledge by Tehran that it would not deliver its cargo of oil to the Assad regime in Syria.

Iranian diplomatic sources said they were unsure whether the offer continues under the new government of Boris Johnson.

A British government spokesperson said: “In response to the heightened threat to commercial shipping in the Gulf, the Department for Transport changed its guidance on Friday 19 July to advise ships not to sail through the area. Freedom of navigation is crucial for the global trading system and world economy, and we will do all we can to defend it.

“The Department for Transport has updated its advice to confirm that the Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz, either individually or in groups, should sufficient notice be given of their passage.”

Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, welcomed the government announcement.

“Freedom of navigation is a fundamental principle of international maritime law. The UK Chamber of Shipping welcomes the government’s decision to accompany and protect British-flagged ships passing through the Straits of Hormuz.

“The announcement is an encouraging step to ensuring this fundamental principle is upheld. This move will provide some much-needed safety and reassurance to our shipping community in this uncertain time. However, we will continue to push for a de-escalation of tensions in the region and the safe return of our seafarers.”

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