(CNSNews.com) – A Royal Navy warship on Wednesday prevented Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel in small boats from stopping and boarding a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, according to U.S. and British officials.
They said several small boats approached the tanker British Heritage near the northern entrance to the narrow Persian Gulf strait, one of the world’s most strategic maritime chokepoints.
An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters that after the HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy frigate, “pointed it guns at the boats and warned them over radio,” the boats had dispersed.
A British government spokesman said early on Thursday, “Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz. We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.”
The incident came just days after senior regime officials in Tehran said that if Britain does not release an Iranian tanker detained off Gibraltar a week ago, then Iran may seize a British ship.
In response to queries, U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in an email, “We are aware of the reports of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy’s FAC/FIAC harassment and attempts to interfere with the passage of the UK-flagged merchant vessel British Heritage today near the Strait of Hormuz.”
“Threats to international freedom of navigation require an international solution,” Urban added. “The world economy depends on the free flow of commerce, and it is incumbent on all nations to protect and preserve this lynchpin of global prosperity.”
The abbreviations FAC/FIAC stand for fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft.
A 2017 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report describes Iranian FACs as small, fast vessels, obtained from China and North Korea or built domestically, able to reach speeds of 40-50 knots, and “armed with capable weapons systems, such as cruise missiles and torpedoes.”
FIACs are more lightly armed and tend to operate in “swarms.”
“Usually fitted with only machine guns and/or rockets, and used en masse, these vessels are capable of harassing merchant shipping and conducting swarm tactics during a force-on-force naval engagement,” the ONI report said.
The British Heritage, a 160,000-ton capacity tanker, sails under the flag of the Isle of Man, a British dependency.
Earlier this week it was reported that the HMS Montrose, which has been forward-based in Bahrain since April, had been escorting another British tanker, the Pacific Voyager, in the Hormuz area. That 302,000-ton capacity tanker also flies the Isle of Man flag.
Iran and Britain are at loggerheads over the seizure on July 4 of an Iranian tanker, Grace I, after it was boarded by British Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar, a British territory at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.
Gibraltar authorities say they acted on the grounds the ship was taking crude oil to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions against the Assad regime.
Iran accused Britain of “piracy,” and then later claimed that the ship was not headed for Syria but another, unspecified, destination. The Grace I remains at anchor off Gibraltar as investigations continue.
A day after it was detained Mohsen Rezai, a former IRGC commander who now heads the Expediency Council – a body that advises supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – said that if Britain does not release the ship it was Iran’s responsibility “to seize a British oil tanker in a retaliatory measure.”
On Tuesday this week, Iran’s chief of general staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri said Britain’s actions would not go unanswered.
“The U.K.’s move will not be left without response,” he said. “If necessary, Iran will give a proper response to the act at an appropriate time and place.”
On Wednesday, Iranian media quoted President Hassan Rouhani as mocking Britain for deploying a warship in the region to escort its tankers because it was “scared.”
“You [Britain] are the initiator of insecurity and you will realize the consequences later,” Rouhani said after a cabinet meeting. “Now you are so hopeless that, when one of your tankers wants to move in the region, you have to bring your frigates because you are scared.”
Responding to news of Iran’s failed attempt to stop the tanker, Norman Roule, a former CIA veteran and advisor to the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran, tweeted, “The international community needs to firmly & quickly stand with the UK at this moment.”
“Iran's people also need to understand that Tehran’s actions will not be tolerated. The weak response to the mine attacks [on four tankers in June, blamed by the U.S. on Iran] may have encouraged this.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said this week the U.S. is proposing a coalition of countries to patrol and escort shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and another important waterway, the Bab el Mandeb in the south of the Red Sea.