Britain joins US in mission to protect vessels in Strait of Hormuz

Britain has joined the United States in a maritime security mission in the Gulf to protect merchant vessels travelling through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran seized a British-flagged vessel.

British officials stressed that there was no change to London's policy on Iran but joining the US is the most significant non-Brexit foreign policy move to date of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's 12-day-old government.

Just two weeks ago, Britain was calling for a European-led naval mission. Now, it has joined what it said was a US-led "international maritime security mission". No other nations are yet involved.

The Australian government says it's considering the request from the US.

"It is vital to secure the freedom for all international shipping to navigate the Strait of Hormuz without delay, given the increased threat," said British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

"The deployment of Royal Navy assets is a sign of our commitment to our UK flagged vessels and we look forward to working alongside the US and others to find an international solution to the problems in the Strait of Hormuz."

Tanker traffic through the strait, through which a fifth of the world's oil passes, has become the focus for a stand-off between Iran and the US, which has beefed up its military presence in the Gulf since May.

Last month, Iran's Revolutionary Guards seized a British tanker, Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz for alleged marine violations. That came two weeks after Britain seized an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar, accusing it of violating sanctions on Syria.

Britain has repeatedly ruled out any exchange.

The tanker dispute has tangled the UK in the diplomatic differences between the EU's big powers, which want to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, and the US which has pushed for a tougher policy on Iran.

"Our approach to Iran hasn't changed," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. "We remain committed to working with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate the situation and maintain the nuclear deal."

A British source said the focus of the new mission would be protecting the security of shipping and Britain would not be joining US sanctions against Iran.

Another British source said London hoped the US-led mission would transition towards a European-led mission. The UK has also offered to lead one of the US-led mission's maritime task groups.

Britain has deployed a destroyer HMS Duncan and a frigate HMS Montrose to the Gulf to accompany UK-flagged vessels through the strait. So far, 47 ships have been accompanied by the naval vessels, British officials said.

Reuters