Iran's ship seizure a 'hostile act' - UK

Britain has denounced the Iranian seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf as a hostile act, rejecting Tehran's explanation that it had seized the vessel because it had been involved in an accident.

Friday's action by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the global oil trade's most important waterway has been viewed in the West as a major escalation in three months of confrontation that took Iran and the US to the brink of war.

It came two weeks after Britain seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar accused of violating sanctions on Syria, an action that prompted numerous Iranian threats to retaliate.

British Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt on Saturday called the incident a "hostile act".

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had expressed extreme disappointment by phone to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Britain also summoned the Iranian charge d'affaires in London.

A spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier-General Ramezan Sharif, said Tehran had seized the ship in the Strait of Hormuz despite the "resistance and interference" of a British warship which had been escorting it.

Iran's Fars news agency said the Guards had taken control of the Stena Impero on Friday after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.

The vessel, carrying no cargo, was taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. It would remain there with its 23 crew, 18 of them Indians, while the accident was investigated, Iranian news agencies quoted the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, as saying.

Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency posted a video of the ship anchored at sea, its name clearly visible. Zarif told Britain's Hunt that the ship must go through a legal process before it could be released, Iran's INSA news agency reported.

The strait, between Iran and the Arabian peninsula, is the sole outlet for exports of the vast majority of Middle Eastern oil, and the seizure sent oil prices sharply higher.

The Stena Impero.
The Stena Impero. Photo credit: Reuters

The US, which tightened sanctions against Iran in May with the aim of halting its oil exports altogether, has been warning for months of an Iranian threat to shipping in the strait.

France, Germany and the European Union joined Britain in condemning the seizure.

The three big European countries are signatories to a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that Washington undermined by quitting last year, setting Iran's already fragile relations with the West on a downward spiral.

"Just spoke to ... Zarif and expressed extreme disappointment that having assured me last Saturday Iran wanted to de-escalate situation, they have behaved in the opposite way," tweeted British Foreign Secretary Hunt. "This has to be about actions not words if we are to find a way through."

Earlier he said London's reaction would be "considered but robust", and it would ensure the safety of its shipping.

The past three months of escalation have seen the US and Iran come as close as ever to direct armed conflict. In June, Tehran shot down a US drone and Trump ordered retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off just minutes before impact.

Since British Royal Marines abseiled from a helicopter off Gibraltar to seize the Grace 1 Iranian tanker on July 4, a number of Iranian officials had threatened to retaliate.

A senior politician and Revolutionary Guards commander, Major General Mohsen Rezai, said on Twitter that Iran was not looking for war, "but we are not going to come up short in reciprocating".