(CNSNews.com) – As a second British warship entered the Persian Gulf at the weekend, the Iranian regime described as “hostile” and “provocative” proposals for Western naval vessels to escort commercial ships through the crucial waterway, where Iran recently seized a British oil tanker.
The head of the regime’s Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai, told a visiting Chinese Communist Party delegation that the British and U.S. were “fanning the flames of war in the Persian Gulf.”
“They want to pretend they have control over the Strait of Hormuz and the movement of vessels. Of course, we do not allow this to happen,” added Rezai, a suspected international terrorist.
President Hassan Rouhani warned that “the presence of foreign forces will not help the region’s security and will be the main source of tensions,” while regime spokesman Ali Rabiei said states bordering the Gulf, not outside powers, should provide security there.
Exactly what the mission will look like remains unclear, in part because of emerging differences between Britain under its new prime minister, and its European Union partners.
The U.S. first proposed Operation Sentinel, a loose coalition of countries willing to provide security for their own flagged commercial ships transiting the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel between the coastlines of Iran and Oman.
Then, after Iran seized a British tanker, the Stena Impero, ten days ago, a British government in transition proposed a European-led initiative instead, which drew expressions of support from France, Germany and others.
Now, however, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is arguing that a European-led initiative needs U.S. support in order to be viable. Germany and France are not enthusiastic about aligning with the U.S. in this way because of disagreement with Washington over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Britain last week instructed all British-flagged ships using the Gulf to notify the government of their intention to transit the Strait of Hormuz, to enable the Royal Navy to provide whatever protection it can, escorting ships one by one or in convoys.
On Sunday the Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that the destroyer HMS Duncan, which has been deployed in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, had arrived in the Gulf, joining a frigate already there, the HMS Montrose, to carry out the task.
The Royal Navy’s six Type 45 destroyers have mostly anti-missile and anti-aircraft capabilities, while the 13 Type 23 frigates have anti-submarine, air defense and land attack capabilities, as well as a limited number of anti-ship missiles.
The HMS Montrose was able to stave off an apparent attempt by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to seize a British tanker early this month, but was unable to do so again on July 19, when it was too far from the Stena Impero, to intervene.
To date, the HMS Montrose has far accompanied 35 merchant vessels through the Strait during 20 separate transits, according to the MoD.
“Freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz is vital not just to the U.K., but also our international partners and allies,” said British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. “Merchant ships must be free to travel lawfully and trade safely, anywhere in the world.”
“While we continue to push for a diplomatic resolution that will make this possible again without military accompaniment, the Royal Navy will continue to provide a safeguard for U.K. vessels until this is the reality.”
“The security of British-flagged ships is our priority, and we continue to work to de-escalate the situation with Iran following the unacceptable and illegal seizure of the Stena Impero,” said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
“Freedom of navigation is in the interest of every nation, which is why we have advised British-flagged ships that they will be provided with a military accompaniment to ensure the safety of trade in the region.”
The seizure of the Stena Impero is widely seen as the IRGC retaliation for the July 4 detention in Gibraltar, a British territory, of an Iranian supertanker suspected to have been carrying crude oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Iran denies that, and accuses the British of “piracy.”
Tensions in and around the Gulf predated that incident, however. Since early May Iran and its surrogate forces have been accused of attacking six tankers near the Strait of Hormuz; mounting drone attacks on Saudi airports and key oil pipelines; firing a rocket which landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; and the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone which prompted a U.S. threat to carry out airstrikes.
On July 18 a U.S. Navy ship destroyed an Iranian drone which the U.S. said came within a threatening distance in the Strait of Hormuz.
The incidents occurred against a backdrop of a stepped-up U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign on the regime, centered on the restoration of sanctions that had been suspended under the JCPOA, which Trump abandoned last year.
Washington’s European allies disagree with the decision to exit the JCPOA, and continue to work to keep the agreement alive, even while speaking against Tehran’s aggressive behavior in the region.
The remaining parties in the JCPOA – Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, and Iran – met in Vienna at the weekend to discuss how to keep the deal afloat.