ACCORDING TO the Ministry of Defence, three Iranian naval “boats” believed to belong to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – have attempted to impede the British oil tanker, British Heritage.
The craft intercepted the tanker and tried to force the ship to deviate course and stop inside Iranian waters as it entered the Strait of Hormuz. The Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose, however, had the tanker under escort. A MOD spokesperson described the harassing actions of the small craft to be “contrary to international law”, while Iranian media, quoting the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy, denies these “claims by American sources”.
Tensions with Iran have risen as the UK has stated the Middle Eastern country was “almost certainly” responsible for attacks on two oil tankers in June, and on July 4 – at the request of the government of Gibraltar – Royal Marines assisted Gibraltan authorities in boarding another tanker, the Grace 1. It is thought the ship was breaching long-standing EU sanctions by attempting to transport Iranian crude oil to the Baniyas Refinery in Syria. Iran claims – denied by the British – that the seizure of the vessel was illegal and piratical, and an official threatened that Iran is obliged through duty to seize a British tanker “without hesitation”.
HMS Montrose reportedly put herself between the Iranian craft and British Heritage, verbally warning the aggressors and purportedly training her guns on them. No shots – in anger or in warning – were fired and the boats backed down. At time of writing, the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy denies the incident took place.
The Royal Navy currently has a frigate, an RFA craft and four smaller vessels permanently stationed in Bahrain, but defence pundits suggest this strength will not be enough should the crisis escalate. In 2004 and again in 2007, the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy seized British naval RHIBs and military personnel, on both occasions claiming they strayed into Iranian waters.
The swift action of Montrose may have prevented a more serious incident, but the question of how to protect civilian vessels transiting the Gulf is as pertinent as ever.
A spokesperson for BP Shipping, which owns the British Heritage, has thanked the Royal Navy.