The UK is stepping up its military presence in the Gulf by sending a second warship to the region to protect British commercial oil tankers, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said.
The HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, will be sent to the region within days after it completed a course of Nato exercises in the Baltic Sea with the aim to be in the region by next week.
The ship will work alongside the Royal Navy’s frigate HMS Montrose and US Gulf allies, but will not participate in Washington’s proposed global maritime coalition to protect shipping in the area.
The HMS Duncan was due to have replaced the Montrose, but for a fixed period the two ships will instead work alongside one another.
The news comes after Theresa May said she would begin talks with US authorities on beefing up a transatlantic presence in the Gulf following two sets of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and an attempt by Iranian navy to push a British owned oil ship towards undisputed Iranian waters.
The UK already has four mine hunting vessels stationed in the region, and former naval commanders, such as Admiral Lord West has warned the UK only has 8 frigates on patrol.
His fears have been echoed by Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, who has renewed his call for a doubling of British spending on defence.
Hunt underscored that the UK was not seeking to escalate the crisis with Iran saying it was a time for cool heads, but he added: “We take maritime security very seriously. It is our primary responsibility to protect British shipping. This is a situation that is changing every hour, but we are reacting to what is happening in a clear and very measured way.”
The MoD said it was seeking to de-escalate the crisis with Iran, reinforcing a cross-Whitehall message, but conceded that with more than 15 British owned oil ships going through the Gulf each day it was not possible to protect all shipping.
Explaining the latest move the MoDe said: “As part of our long-standing presence in the Gulf, HMS Duncan is deploying to the region to ensure we maintain a continuous maritime security presence while HMS Montrose comes off task for pre-planned maintenance and crew change over.
“This will ensure that the UK alongside international partners can continue to support freedom of navigation for vessels transiting through this vital shipping lane.”
Britain’s already poor relations with Iran dipped further last week when the UK seized an Iranian ship, Grace 1, carrying oil destined for Syria, a contract that the UK said was in breach of EU sanctions on Iran. Tehran has denied the ship was heading for Syria and threatened to seize a British oil tanker in retaliation, if the tanker was not released.
Hunt said he was seeking to resolve the crisis with Iran in a way which ensured sanctions against Syria, a country that has used chemical weapons against its own people, are not breached.
The ship’s captain and chief officer were arrested by the Gibraltarian authorities after the ship was searched for more than a week.
Iran is demanding the ship back, and has accused the UK of piracy summoning the British ambassador to Tehran, Robert Macaire, four times in the past week.
Iran has suggested the UK seized the tanker “at the behest of” the US government “in line with America’s hostile policies”.
Foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “This is a dangerous game and we advise them not get involved in this game under America’s influence.”
He added: “We ask them again to release the tanker immediately, which will be in all countries’ interest.”
Senior Iranian cleric Kazem Sedighi was reported by state TV as saying: “The British will soon get a slap from the strong arms of our establishment for their daring, reckless and negligent act that will make them regret it for good.”
When imposing the sanctions in May, the US ordered other countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or face being excluded from the global financial system.
In retaliation, Iran has decreased its commitments to the nuclear pact, in defiance of a warning by European countries.
The US blames Iran for a series of attacks on shipping in the world’s most important oil artery since mid-May, allegations that have been denied by Tehran.
The US has also dispatched extra troops to the region to counter what it described as Iranian threats.
Meanwhile Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, asked the UK not to get involved in US plans for military convoys to protect oil ships in the Gulf.
Accusing the US of behaving like a “bull in a china shop” and taking the world down a dead-end street, the former inspector said the confrontational approach of the White House was not going to solve the threat posed to the Iran nuclear deal by the US decision to withdraw from it.
The UK claims it has not yet seen the details of the US proposal for coordinated international naval convoys through the Gulf. This is despite Trump having raised the proposal at the end of last month, before the G20 summit in Japan, emphasising that he wanted to see more Asian countries contributing to the cost of escorting oil ships.
On 28 June, after other attacks on merchant ships, Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, travelled to London to meet the secretary general of the International Maritime Organization, Kitack Lim, to press the case for greater co-ordination. After the meeting Lim said his “primary concern is that merchant vessels, peaceably going about their business, should not be subjected to unprovoked attacks”.
More than 60% of the oil going through the Gulf is heading for Asian markets, and Trump has said he feels their financial contribution does not match the benefits they receive. The US dependence on oil, by contrast, has been falling.
The UK is increasingly caught in a vice, continuing to support the nuclear pact, while Iran slowly reduces its commitments under the deal in protest at Europe’s failure to do more to circumvent the impact of US sanctions on EU firms that want to trade with Iran.
Iran says the central agreement of the nuclear deal was that Tehran would permit close international oversight of its nuclear facilities in return for closer economic ties with the west.
The tensions between the UK and Iran over oil ships has added another dimension. The UK does not have sufficient naval assets in the region to protect all British-owned shipping, but it would be wary if the US were effectively in sole command of any such operation.
ElBaradei accused the US of “applying a waterboarding method to Iran, drowning Iran and then saying to them: ‘Let’s have a dialogue without pre-conditions.’”
He said he was horrified by the US policy on Iran. “The new crazies are going out of the way to look for confrontation. This is an opportunity for the British to say that they are standing behind values and principles and not continuing to act as a proxy for the US.”