(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday denounced Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its “attempt to harass” a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, even as the IRGC and Iran’s foreign minister denied that the incident ever occurred.
Britain’s ministry of defense confirmed that three Iranian boats had on Wednesday “attempted to impede the passage” of the tanker, British Heritage, and that a Royal Navy frigate had intervened.
It said HMS Montrose had been “forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away.”
“We commend the Royal Navy in ensuring freedom of navigation and will continue to work with our allies to ensure the Iranian regime does not disrupt maritime security and global commerce,” Pompeo tweeted later on Thursday.
The State Department in a brief statement condemning the harassment said the U.S. “will continue to work closely with the United Kingdom and our allies to ensure that the Iranian regime’s malign activities do not further disrupt international law, maritime security, or global commerce.”
The incident came shortly after senior regime officials signaled that Iran may seize a British ship in retaliation for the detention off Gibraltar a week ago of an Iranian supertanker, Grace I, which was intercepted on the grounds it was taking crude oil to Syria in violation of E.U. sanctions against the Assad regime.
The Iranians are denying that the British Heritage incident took place at all.
“The IRGC Navy’s patrols in the Persian Gulf are being carried out according to routine methods and ordered missions with smartness, precision, and power,” the IRGC Navy said in a statement released to Iranian media outlets.
“Over the last 24 hours there have been no encounters with foreign vessels, including British vessels,” it said.
“In the event that a command is received for the seizure of foreign vessels, the IRGC Navy’s fifth naval zone, in its geographical area of mission, is able to do so immediately, firmly, and promptly,” the statement added.
(Iran’s territorial waters are divided into five “naval zones” – three in the Persian Gulf, are the IRGC Navy’s area of responsibility, while two others, in the Gulf of Oman and the Caspian Sea, fall under Iran’s smaller regular navy.)
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told reporters that the British and U.S. claims about the tanker being harassed were “worthless” and designed to create tensions.
“They are seeking to cover up their weaknesses with such claims,” the Fars news agency quoted him as saying.
Fars commented that “analysts” believe the claims were an attempt to counteract criticism of Britain for last week’s action against Grace I off Gibraltar, a British territory.
On Thursday, police in Gibraltar formally placed under arrest the tanker’s captain and chief officer, both Indian nationals, on suspicion of violating E.U. sanctions against the Assad regime.
Territory authorities said earlier that, contrary to some claims, the supertanker was found to be laden to capacity with crude oil.
Iran’s foreign ministry has denied the ship was bound for Syria, but has not provided an alternative intended destination.
The BBC reports that the British government this week lifted the threat level facing British ships in the Persian Gulf to the highest level – “critical.”
The Strait of Hormuz lies between Iran and Oman, less than 30 miles wide at its narrowest point. It has two shipping lanes, one for tanker traffic in each direction, that are a mere two nautical miles across. The waters traversed are Iranian and Omani territory.
The U.S. is looking to bring together a coalition of countries to patrol the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb at the entrance to the Red Sea, and escort ships using the two narrow waterways, both crucial to world energy and commercial shipping.