DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The British navy has begun escorting vessels traveling through the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian forces seized a British-flagged tanker.
In a statement Thursday, Britain’s Defense Ministry said 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.”
The HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, became the first navy ship to offer an escort in the narrow waterway, Sky News reported Thursday, citing shipping industry sources.
Britain made the decision after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on July 19 seized the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker, as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran claimed the Stena Impero was using the wrong channel through the strait and had turned off its signals for longer than allowed.
But the seizure was widely interpreted as a response to British marines taking part in the seizure of an Iranian-flagged tanker near Gibraltar, a British overseas territory.
Britain said it sent Royal Marines to board and take control of the Grace 1 tanker because it was suspected of transporting oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions targeting Syria’s government.
On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to suggest that Tehran would consider releasing the Stena Impero if Britain released the Grace 1.
Britain has previously suggested that the seizure of the Iranian tanker needed to be resolved by Gibraltar’s courts and called on Iran to provide evidence that the tanker was not en route to Syria.
The seizure of the British-flagged tanker caused consternation in Britain. The country is still in the midst of its protracted attempt to leave the European Union and was finding a successor for Prime Minister Theresa May when the Stena Impero was taken.
A former head of the Royal Navy wrote in a column in the Guardian after the seizure that the tanker should have been better protected. Audio recordings that later leaked indicated the HMS Montrose tried to intervene to protect the Stena Impero.
The HMS Montrose was deployed in April to Bahrain to strengthen the British naval presence in the Persian Gulf. It is due to be joined and later relieved by the HMS Duncan, a larger Type 45 frigate.
The British government has been criticized for not providing the navy with enough ships to protect its interests in the region. The Times of London reported this week that almost half of Britain’s fleet of frigates and destroyers is inactive because they are undergoing repairs.
On Monday, Britain’s then-foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, outlined a vision for a Europe-led plan “to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region.” Other nations, including France and Germany, expressed cautious support for the proposal.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Wednesday that the United States would send its own escorts for U.S.-flagged ships in the region.
“The Brits are escorting their ships,” Esper said. “We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it. I assume that other countries will escort their ships.”
The United States had previously proposed a coalition under which nations would protect ships that carry their own flag but would also undertake joint operations designed for surveillance of the waterways.
Britain, along with other European nations, had been wary of joining the U.S.-led proposal, however, as it did not want to be associated with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.
Hunt, who helped formulate Britain’s proposal for a European-led plan, left his position as British foreign secretary on Wednesday after Boris Johnson became Britain’s prime minister. Hunt ran against Johnson in the bid to become British leader.
In an interview with an Iranian state-funded broadcaster, Stanley Johnson, the father of the new prime minister, said his son has a different view of Iran because of his “great sense of history.”
The elder Johnson also said he thought a tanker swap was the easiest solution to the standoff. “Well, I think the best thing would be to say, we let your ship go and you let our ship go,” he said in the interview with Iran’s Press TV. “Easy peasy.”