(CNSNews.com) – Reacting to Western proposals to protect commercial shipping facing potential threats in the Persian Gulf, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has warned that the regime will confront any attempt to “disrupt order” in the crucial waterway.
“The Iranian nation has always acted as the guardian of the Persian Gulf,” Rouhani told his cabinet, adding that security there “has nothing to do with” any countries apart from Iran and the Gulf’s other littoral states.
He warned against any acts of “mischief” in the Gulf.
A warning also came from the military advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, who told Al Jazeera that proposals for a European-led force to escort ships through the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz chokepoint “could lead to unpredictable consequences.”
“Our equation in the Strait of Hormuz is that either everyone enjoys full security, or no one does,” he said.
And on Twitter, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “Iran does not seek confrontation. But we have 1,500 miles of Persian Gulf coastline. These are our waters & we will protect them.”
After the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a British tanker in the Strait last Friday, Britain began to mobilize European Union partners to respond.
On Monday then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament that Britain was seeking “to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region.”
Although Hunt said the plan would complement a U.S. proposal known as Operation Sentinel, the Europeans appear to want to keep some distance between the two – since the E.U. and U.S. have differences over how to deal with Iran, and specifically over the Iran nuclear deal.
He told lawmakers that what the Europeans were proposing in the Gulf “will not be part of the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran, because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.”
(Since Hunt made that speech, incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson has replaced him as foreign secretary with Dominic Raab, who has yet to speak publicly on the Iran situation beyond calling the tanker seizure “a very sensitive issue.” Johnson says he is determined to take Britain out of the E.U. by the end of October, so how he deals with the U.S.-E.U. differences over Iran will be closely watched.)
‘An act of state piracy’
An estimated one-fifth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its liquefied natural gas passes through the Strait each year en route to global markets.
According to the Pentagon, Operation Sentinel proposes to draw together partners “to promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions” both in the Strait of Hormuz and the narrow Bab el Mandeb waterway at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking a day after the Senate confirmed his nomination, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that he viewed the U.S. and European initiatives as complementary.
“Most countries who transit the Strait should have an interest in this and want to participate and want to provide some type of forces to … ensure navigation of the Strait, freedom of the seas, and to deter provocative behavior,” he said. “It’s all complimentary, it all works.”
Esper said U.S.-flagged ships in the Gulf will be safeguarded to deter Iranian attempts to stop or seize a vessel, “to the degree that the risk demands it,” making clear that that could include monitoring from the air, rather than a close naval escort in every case.
Asked whether he was saying the U.S. would not ever allow a U.S.-flagged commercial ship be seized or boarded by the Iranians, Esper said the question dealt with hypotheticals, but agreed that “we would want to prevent the Iranians seizing or stopping a ship, certainly for any arbitrary reason whatsoever.”
Britain and Iran are wrangling over the IRGC’s seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero, which Britain says occurred in Omani territorial waters and was “an act of state piracy,” while Iran claims it acted in Iranian waters in response to the ship’s violations of maritime laws and practice.
While Tehran denies it, the incident is widely seen as the IRGC’s retaliation for the detention in the British territory of Gibraltar earlier this month of an Iranian supertanker, Grace I, stopped on the grounds it was carrying crude oil to Syria in contravention of E.U. sanctions against the Assad regime.
Iran insists that tanker was not bound for Syria – although it has not offered an alternative destination – and charges that its seizure was carried out at the behest of the U.S.
Rouhani spokesman Ali Rabei suggested a diplomatic solution could be found, implying that Iran could release the Stena Impero if Britain releases the Grace I.
Esper said the Stena Impero seizure was clearly a “tit-for-tat” situation.
He noted that an earlier attempt by the Iranians to stop another British tanker had been foiled by a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Montrose, but during Friday’s incident “the warship wasn’t within close enough proximity” to prevent the seizure of the Stena Impero.
In his speech to parliament, Hunt said British commercial ships transit Hormuz at an average rate of two or three a day. He said HMS Montrose had escorted 30 vessels through the Strait, but that it was “of course not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship or indeed eliminate all risks of piracy.”
On Thursday it was reported that British-flagged vessels have been instructed to inform the government ahead of planned transit through the Strait, so that a warship can provide an escort, either individually or in a convoy group.
A spokesman for the new prime minister said the government was working on securing the release of the tanker and its 23 crew members still held in Iran.