“We are looking for ways to deescalate the situation,” Hunt said. “But we are also very clear that we will do what it takes to ensure the safety and security of British and international shipping.”
For the second time in 24 hours, the British government convened an emergency session to discuss the seizure of the tanker in Omani waters “in clear contravention of international law,” Hunt said. “This is totally and utterly unacceptable.”
He said Parliament would be updated Monday about any further measures that will be taken but he said the threat level has already been raised to the highest level.
Only last Saturday, Hunt said Iranian officials had reassured him that they wanted to deescalate tensions following the British detention of the Grace 1, an Iranian-affiliated ship, off the coast of Gibraltar.
The vessel was believed to have been carrying crude oil destined for Syria, in violation of EU sanctions.
“This has [to] be about actions not words if we are to find a way through,” Hunt wrote on Twitter. “British shipping must & will be protected.”
Hunt said that, following his conversation with Zarif, and from reading other reports, it was now clear to him that Iran saw Friday’s seizure of the Stena Impero as a “tit for tat situation.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Hunt added.
Hunt also stressed that Britain was not seeking to emulate the “maximum pressure strategy” adopted by the Trump administration.
“They have a different approach to dealing with Iran to us and France and Germany,” Hunt said. “We continue to support the Iran nuclear deal. This is about the safety of British and international shipping in one of the most important seaways in the world.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has posted a video online showing speedboats pulling alongside the Stena Impero tanker, its name clearly visible.
Troops wearing ski masks and carrying machine guns rappelled to its deck from a helicopter, the same tactics used by British Royal Marines to seize an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar two weeks ago.
Friday’s action in the global oil trade’s most important waterway has been viewed in the West as a major escalation after three months of confrontation that has already taken Iran and the United States to the brink of war.
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 that had been escorting it. No British warship was visible in the video posted by the Guards.
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 will remain there with its 23 crew – 18 of them Indians – while the accident is investigated, Iranian news agencies quoted the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, as saying.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Britain said the tanker was approached by Iranian forces when it was in Omani territorial waters exercising its lawful right of passage, and the action “constitutes illegal interference”.
“Current tensions are extremely concerning, and our priority is to de-escalate. We do not seek confrontation with Iran,” the letter said. “But it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to threaten shipping going about its legitimate business through internationally recognised transit corridors.”
Zarif told Hunt that the ship must go through a legal process before it can be released, Iran’s ISNA news agency reported.
The strait, between Iran and the Arabian peninsula, is the sole outlet for exports of most Middle Eastern oil, and the seizure sent oil prices sharply higher. The United States, 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.
LA Times, Reuters