Tue, 20 Aug 2019

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says he is worried that Iran has taken a 'dangerous path' after it seized a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf on July 19.

'Yesterday's action in Gulf shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour after Gibraltar's LEGAL detention of oil bound for Syria,' Hunt said on Twitter on July 20.

Earlier, Hunt said his country was focusing on diplomacy and not 'military options' following Iran's seizure of a British oil tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

'We will respond in a way that is considered but robust and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences,' Hunt told reporters late on July 19.

He added, though, that London was 'not looking at military options -- we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation.'

Hunt is one of two candidates to replace Prime Minister Theresa May in the coming days following her standing down as Conservative Party leader. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, however, looks to be the likely winner of the position.

A British government spokeswoman said London remained deeply worried about 'Iran's unacceptable actions, which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation.'

'We have advised U.K. shipping to stay out of the area for an interim period,' she said on July 20 following an overnight government emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.

She added that there will be further meetings over the weekend and 'we remain in close contact with our international partners.'

British officials and their U.S. allies condemned Iran's actions earlier on July 19 after Tehran seized the British tanker in the strait, one of the world's most strategic commercial shipping routes. Another tanker, identified as a British-operated, Liberian-flagged vessel, was also briefly stopped by Iranian security forces but later allowed to head on its way.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on July 19 said it had seized the British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz for an alleged failure 'to respect international maritime rules.'

France and Germany condemned Iran's action on July 20 while calling on Tehran to return the tanker and its crew.

'We have learned with great concern of the seizure of a British vessel by Iranian forces,' the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 'We strongly condemn it and express our full solidarity with the United Kingdom,' the statement added.

A German Foreign Ministry spokesman called on Iran to release the ship and its crew 'immediately.'

'This is an unjustifiable interference in the civilian shipping industry, which further exacerbates an already tense situation,' the ministry said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on July 20 that Iran was the guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf and the strait, claiming Tehran's actions in the gulf were to uphold international maritime law.

Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency quoted an official as claiming early on July 20 that the Stena Impero had been involved in an accident with a fishing boat before being detained.

'It got involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat.... When the boat sent a distress call, the British-flagged ship ignored it,' Allahmorad Afifipour, the head of Ports and Maritime Organization in southern Hormozgan Province, was quoted as saying.

Afifipour added that the tanker was now at Iran's Bandar Abbas port and that all crew members 'will remain on the ship until the probe is over.'

The tanker was not carrying any cargo and the 23 crew members -- 18 of them Indians -- may be interviewed on technical matters, Afifipour later told the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

The Stena Impero's owner and operator, Stena Bulk and Northern Marine, denied any violations. They issued a statement saying there were 23 sailors aboard the tanker and that they were unable to contact the vessel. They said there were no reported injuries among the crew, identified as being of Indian, Russian, Latvian, and Filipino nationality.

India's Foreign Ministry said it was actively seeking the release and repatriation of its nationals from among the crew.

Following the seizure, Hunt said he was 'extremely concerned' by Iran's actions in the strait and called an urgent meeting of senior U.K. security officials 'to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels.

The United States accused Tehran of 'escalatory violence' and President Donald Trump spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron about the perceived Iranian threat and said he would 'talk to the U.K.' and 'be working with the U.K.' in light of the latest developments.

Trump added: 'This only goes to show what I'm saying about Iran: Trouble, nothing but trouble.'

The fresh incidents follow a month of naval confrontations, seizures, and reported shoot-downs of drones involving Iranian and Western vessels, along with accusations and counteraccusations of what happened and who is to blame.

On July 4, the British Navy seized a Panamanian-flagged Iranian tanker off the southern tip of Spain that it suspected of smuggling oil to Iranian ally Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. On July 19, Gibraltar's government reportedly extended the detention by 30 days of the vessel, the Grace 1.

Tehran on July 12 called on Britain to immediately release the oil tanker.

'This is a dangerous game and has consequences...the legal pretexts for the capture are not valid...the release of the tanker is in all countries' interest,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi said.

Iran's IRGC at the time threatened to seize a British vessel in retaliation.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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