(CNSNews.com) – A senior British Conservative Party lawmaker said Sunday he understood that the United States had offered the use of its assets to protect British shipping in the Persian Gulf, but the offer had not been taken up.
Commenting on Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC the government has questions to answer.
Nine days earlier, a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Montrose, had prevented Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel in small, fast boats from stopping another British tanker in the strait, but during Friday’s incident the warship had been too far away to prevent the seizure of the Stena Impero.
IRGC personnel boarded the Stena Impero by helicopter, and forced it to make for Iran’s Bandar Abbas port. Britain’s Department of Transport released a map which it said shows that the tanker had been in Omani territorial waters when boarded.
U.K. Chamber of Shipping CEO Bob Sanguinetti said Iran’s action was “in clear violation of international regulations and freedom of navigation.”
The regime had been threatening to seize a British tanker ever since an Iranian tanker was detained in Gibraltar, a British territory, on July 4 on suspicion of transporting oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party, said while he supports the government, “there are genuine questions to be raised right now” about its handling of the situation.
“The fact is that we had seized an Iranian tanker [in Gibraltar]. If something didn’t send an alarm signal that we needed to have serious assets or protection, and convoying of our vessels in that area, then I want to know why not.”
“And I understand, and I understand this from reasonable sources, that Washington had offered the U.K. government – even in the event that they haven’t quite agreed an allied position to this – to use U.S. assets to support British shipping, and they were not taken up.”
He noted that the Royal Navy apparently had only one ship in the region, and there had been no accelerated deployment of additional assets there.
“This is a major failure and the government has to answer that charge very quickly indeed.”
The incident comes at a time of transition in Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May will finally leave Downing Street on Wednesday, one day after her successor – Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt – is named. Duncan Smith is a close ally to Johnson, who is widely expected to be the next prime minister.
Speaking on the same BBC program, British chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond disputed that the government had been too distracted at this time to prevent the Iranian action.
“I don’t think the government’s taken its eye off the ball,” he said, adding that Britain has been “very much engaged both with the Americans and our European partners” in response to Iran’s behavior.
Hammond stressed that the seizure took place in Omani waters and was “an illegal act,” adding that “we are going to pursue every possible diplomatic route to resolve this issue.”
(Hammond also announced he plans to resign if Johnson wins – they differ over Brexit – so he will not likely play any role in the efforts to resolve the crisis.)
‘International condemnation and punishment’
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a leading critic of the Iranian regime in the U.S. Senate, said on Twitter the U.S., working closely with Britain and allies, will demand that Iran release the ship and crew immediately.
“The ayatollahs will continue their campaign of terror as long as we let them,” he said. “Outrageous and lawless acts such as this hijacking call for international condemnation and punishment.”
Amid escalating tensions in the Gulf, the U.S. military has been looking into drawing together a coalition of countries to patrol and escort their flagged ships through the crucial chokepoint and another one, the Bab el Mandeb at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
U.S. Central Command announced Friday that the effort, named Operation Sentinel, will aim “to promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions in international waters” in the region.
“While the United States has committed to supporting this initiative, contributions and leadership from regional and international partners will be required to succeed,” it said.
“U.S. officials continue to coordinate with allies and partners in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East on the details and capabilities required for Operation Sentinel to enable freedom of navigation in the region and protect vital shipping lanes.”
In the meantime, a Central Command spokesman confirmed that U.S. aircraft are monitoring the situation in Hormuz, and the military is in contact with U.S. ships in the area.
Queries sent to Central Command about Duncan Smith’s claims brought no response to press time.
The IRGC released a video clip showing the tanker’s capture. Apparently filmed from one of the patrol boats involved, the footage shows personnel descending to the deck by rope from a helicopter. As they do so, a voice near the cameraman is heard shouting, “Allahu Akbar!”
Iran claims it took control of the tanker after it violated international maritime rules. The state-run IRNA news agency said the tanker collided with a fishing boat and then failed to respond to its distress call. Other state-affiliated media offered charged that the ship turned off its GPS, and had used the wrong channel when entering the strait. (Ships traversing the narrow waterway use a two-mile-wide channel, one in each direction.)
Although the ship is British-flagged it is owned by a Swedish company, Stena Bulk.
Like the British authorities, the company insists the ship was not in Iranian waters when boarded, and says it “was in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations.”
Stena Bulk CEO Erik Hanell said a formal request has been made to visit the detained crew members and the company was awaiting a response. The 23 crew are Filipinos, Indian, Russians and Latvians.