A picture taken inside a captured British vessel shows the tanker crew huddling on board after their ship was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Members of the Stena Impero’s 23-strong crew are seen sitting on the floor of the UK-flagged vessel while an Iranian official speaks to them with what appears to be a pile of shoes nearby, after the tanker was taken in a tit-for-tat seizure on Friday.
Iran initially claimed it had captured the ship in a row over a fishing boat but later admitted it was retaliating to the British Royal Marine operation in which an Iranian tanker was captured off Gibraltar on July 4.
Russia has taken Iran’s side in the Middle East stand-off, saying Tehran’s position was ‘much more convincing’ than Britain’s.
Speaking in Caracas, Moscow’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov insisted Iran was merely ‘taking care of ecology’ in the Gulf and said ‘Iran’s arguments are much more right than those of Gibraltar and London who are indulging in piracy’.
The tanker row – the latest in a series of threats to Middle East shipping – has sent tensions spiralling further amid furious exchanges of rhetoric over the crumbling nuclear deal with Iran.
Yesterday the Iranian flag was hoisted over the Stena with Iranian armed forces patrolling the decks in the heavily-guarded port of Bandar Abbas.
Video footage released by Iran showed the tanker being surrounded by speedboats before troops in balaclavas descend a rope from a helicopter onto the vessel.
In a radio exchange, an Iranian officer can be heard telling the tanker to change course.
‘You are ordered: change your course… immediately. If you obey, you will be safe,’ he said.
The British frigate HMS Montrose intervenes to inform the Stena its ‘passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered’ under international law.
The Iranians then tell the British warship: ‘No challenge is intended… I want to inspect the ship for security reason.’
The Montrose was too far away to physically stop the seizure.
Iran impounded the Stena on allegations it failed to respond to distress calls and turned off its transponder after hitting a fishing boat.
Its crew is made up of 18 Indians, including the captain, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino.
A top British representative to the UN rejected Iran’s version of events, accusing Tehran of ‘illegal interference’ and saying there was no evidence of a collision.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, British charge d’affaires Jonathan Allen wrote that the vessel had been in Omani waters with its transponder switched on when it was approached.
A second oil tanker, the Liberian-flagged Mesdar, which is managed by Norbulk Shipping UK, veered off course towards the Iranian coast after it was boarded by armed guards at around 5.30pm on Friday.
The Mesdar’s Glasgow-based operator said communication had since been re-established with the ship and the crew were unharmed.
Britain has warned its ships to avoid the Straits of Hormuz, a chokepoint for about a third of the world’s sea-borne oil.
UK authorities intercepted the Grace 1 on July 4, saying it was violating EU sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria.
A detachment of Royal Marines from 42 Commando boarded the vessel off Gibraltar in a joint operation with the Royal Gibraltar Police.
Gibraltar’s government said tests showed the supertanker was fully loaded with crude oil.
But Iran has insisted that the tanker was not headed for Syria.
Theresa May will chair a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee Cobra on Monday amid concern over how Iran was able to capture the ship.
Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said the UK had vessels going through 100 nautical miles of waterway every day in the region, adding: ‘It is impossible simply to escort each individual vessel.’
He also called for more money to be invested in the Royal Navy if Britain wants to continue to play a role on the international stage.
Tankers in the Gulf have come under attack repeatedly in recent weeks, in explosions which Britain and America have blamed on Iran.
A UAE investigation found four mysterious sabotage attacks on May 12 were linked to a ‘state actor’ but did not name Iran.
The attacks were carried out with limpet mines and were ‘part of a sophisticated and coordinated operation’, the report found.
The tanker attacks inflamed an already tense Middle East stand-off and prompted the U.S. to bolster its military presence in the region.
Matters worsened just four weeks later when another two ships were hit by explosions in the Gulf of Oman.
Forty-four sailors were forced to abandon their ships amid a huge fireball on the MT Front Altair and another blast on the Kokuka Courageous.
America again blamed Iran, releasing a video which purported to show Iranian revolutionary guard forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the ships.
Meanwhile tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions have also been heightening as Tehran moves ever further away from its 2015 nuclear deal.
After Donald Trump quit the nuclear deal in 2018, the U.S. administration reimposed tough sanctions on Iran, which retaliated by increasing its enrichment of uranium beyond limits set in the nuclear accord.
Iran has said that it could restart deactivated centrifuges and ramp up enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent.
But Major General Hossein Salami, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, denied Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon.
Trump called off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic downed a U.S. drone.
Today former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said the future of Iran’s nuclear deal could be a way to exert diplomatic pressure on Tehran.
‘We have one substantial card in our hands, which is that the Iranians have been trying to get the British and the Europeans to keep to the Iran nuclear deal,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘Therefore actually their attempt to interfere with a British-flagged ship is obviously wrong, not just in principle, but it’s obviously a political gamble for them.’
He added that the UK would have to make special arrangements to escort shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
This article has been adapted from its original source.