LONDON (AP) — Britain announced plans Monday to develop and deploy a Europe-led “maritime protection mission” to safeguard shipping in the vital Strait of Hormuz in light of Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the waterway last week.
Briefing Parliament on the budding crisis, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt accused Iran of “an act of state piracy” that must be met with a coordinated international reaction.
Iranian officials have suggested the Stena Impero was seized and taken to an Iranian port in response to Britain’s role in seizing an Iranian oil tanker two weeks earlier off the coast of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located on the southern tip of Spain. Hunt announced precious few details of the proposed protection mission, but said Britain’s European allies will play a major role in keeping shipping lanes open. One-fifth of all global crude exports passes through the narrow strait between Iran and Oman. The foreign secretary said Iran must understand that its actions will only lead to a bigger Western military footprint in the region. “It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary,” Hunt said. He also sought to put distance between Britain and its closest international ally, the United States. Washington has broken with London on Iran policy as a result of President Donald Trump’s rejection of the international accord designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the accord last year and re-imposed harsh sanctions, which have had a severe effect on Iran’s economy. The foreign secretary said the planned European mission was not part of the U.S. policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran. It was unclear which countries will join the protection force or how quickly it can be put in place. Hunt said he had consulted with foreign ministers of Oman, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain and Denmark. The tanker crisis is unfolding in the final days of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s leadership. The Conservative Party plans to name her successor Tuesday, and the new prime minister — either front-runner Boris Johnson or Hunt — is expected to take office Wednesday. As the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers unravels, the U.S. has expanded its military presence in the region. Iran has in turn begun openly exceeding the uranium enrichment levels set in the accord to try to pressure Europe into alleviating the pain caused by the sanctions.