Five Iranian ships unsuccessfully tried to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf Wednesday – US officials say.
Armed vessels from Iran‘s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tried to capture the British Heritage tanker while it was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday.
Iran’s ships reportedly ordered the British vessel to divert its course and stop in Iranian waters which it was sailing nearby.
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The tanker British Heritage (pictured in Rotterdam last year) was targeted by Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz
British frigate the HMS Montrose was escorting the tanker and trained its guns on the Iranians before giving them a verbal warning to back off.
A US aircraft was overhead and recorded video of the incident as the Iranian ships then fled – according to CNN.
UK officials had previously confirmed that the Montrose was in the region performing a ‘maritime security role.’
It comes after Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar last week, which Britain says was violating EU sanctions by carrying fuel to Syria.
Iran denies the vessel was bound for Syria and says the UK acted on behalf of the United States, which has separate sanctions in place against Tehran itself.
Senior Iranian politicians had threatened to retaliate by seizing a British tanker.
The BP-owner British Heritage was travelling through the Strait of Hormuz with an escort from HMS Montrose when it was confronted by the Iranian ships
The HMS Montrose (pictured firing a missile on exercise in 2013) warded off the Iranian vessels by training its guns on them
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said in a cabinet session earlier on Wednesday that Britain would ‘see the consequences’ after the Gibraltar seizure.
In remarks broadcast on Iranian TV, Rouhani said: ‘You (Britain) are the initiator of insecurity and you will realise the consequences later.
‘Now you are so hopeless that, when one of your tankers wants to move in the region, you have to bring your frigates (to escort it) because you are scared.
‘Then why do you commit such acts? You should instead allow navigation to be safe.’
The HMS Montrose is equipped on the deck with 30 mm guns specifically designed to drive off small boats.
The Montrose, based in Bahrain, also has radar that allows it to track aircraft and missiles up to 120 miles away, and a missile system with a 20-mile range.
The BP-owned British Heritage, had earlier halted to take refuge off the coast of Saudi Arabia following Iran’s threat.
Earlier this week, British tanker Pacific Voyager, which sails under the Isle of Man flag, was escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by HMS Montrose, a Type-23 frigate, on Tuesday.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned earlier on Wednesday that Britain would ‘face consequences’ for detaining an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar
The incident on Wednesday took place against the backdrop of rising tensions between the Iran and the US which saw Donald Trump accuse the Middle Eastern nation of attacking several tankers in the Gulf.
A number of tankers in the Strait have been damaged by explosions in recent months – which the UK and US blamed on Iran – and Iran shot down a US drone.
America has begun making plans to enlist allies over the next two weeks into a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.
Under the plan, which has only been finalized in recent days, the United States would provide command ships and lead surveillance efforts for the military coalition. Allies would patrol waters near those U.S. command ships and escort commercial vessels with their nation’s flags.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulated those details to reporters following meetings on Tuesday about it with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
‘We’re engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab,’ Dunford said.
‘And so I think probably over the next couple of weeks we’ll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we’ll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that’ll support that.’
Operation: British Royal Marines taking part in the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker in the early hours of last Thursday morning
Why Iran is launching attacks in the Gulf
Some experts believe it’s because they have nothing lose. The economy is expected to shrink by six per cent this year, on top of a 3.9 per cent contraction last year, according to the IMF.
In the pre-Trump sanctions year of 2017 however, the country recorded 3.8 per cent growth. As sanction getting tougher, the likelihood is Iran will become more aggressive and less risk averse.
The other major factor for Iran is oil, and this could be their sign of deterrence against the US ratcheting up pressure on Iranian oil exports.
Iran has come to blows with US President Donald Trump over several attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent months
According to Crisis Group, this method of ransoming the oil market could also benefit the Iranian economy by driving up shipping insurance premiums, helping recoup the cost of US sanctions.
Other strategy experts say that the Iranians are trying to call Trump’s bluff by undermining him through small isolated incidents like the tanker.
‘It’s all about careful calibration and plausible deniability,’ Hussein Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNBC.
Acts like the explosion have not resulted in civilian casualties, and so could be a way to force Trump to reveal his future strategy. The President recently told Time magazine that the incident would ‘not be worth’ going to war over.
It could also be taken as a sign that Iran won’t play fair if they are disadvantaged on oil exports. The Eurasia Group wrote in a June briefing that the sabotaging of the four tankers is an effort by Iran to demonstrate ‘peace and security in the Gulf is contingent on its own economic stability’.
The Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway which is bordered by Iran to the north, accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil traffic.
But despite the smart game-playing, these attacks on US drones and ship could still blow up in the face of the rogue state. When Iran was caught laying sea mines in the 1980s, one of which hit a US frigate, half of the country’s Navy was wiped out. Could it happen again?
‘The status quo is not sustainable for Iran,’ says Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute. ‘So they have the means, the motives and the opportunity… They do not seek a war, exactly, but they are obviously willing to risk one in order to get out of an impossible conundrum.’