In a tweet on Saturday, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero is a sign “Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour”.
Hunt also confirmed that he had spoken to Iranian foreign minister Zarif, expressing his “extreme disappointment” with the situation.
Hunt’s remarks come in response to the seizure of the Stena Impero by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on Friday, which was surrounded by four vessels and a helicopter before changing course into Iranian waters.
Other western nations have echoed Hunt’s tone, with France and Germany calling for the quick release of the vessel, and a White House National Security Council spokesman saying that the UK had been “the target of escalatory violence” by Iran.
Speaking to the BBC on Friday in advance of an emergency COBRA meeting, Hunt had declared Iran’s actions to be “completely unacceptable”.
“We will respond in a way that is considered but robust,” Hunt stated. However, he was clear that military options are not being considered.
“If the situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences,” he added. “Freedom of navigation in the Gulf is absolutely essential. If that freedom of navigation is restricted Iran is the biggest loser, and so it is in their interests to resolve the situation as quickly as possible”.
Tensions have been escalating in the geopolitically important Gulf region since the US’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and strengthening of sanctions against Iran. European nations, including the UK, remain committed to preserving the deal. However, the UK’s involvement in helping to seize an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar earlier in July has largely been seen as adding fuel to the fire.
The UK has maintained that the reasoning behind the seizure of the Grace 1 by Royal Marines was due to the belief that the vessel was carrying Iranian oil to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions against the Assad regime. Hunt upheld this position in his series of tweets on Saturday, referring to the detention of the vessel as “legal”.
However, Iranian foreign minister Zarif referred in a tweet to the events in Gibraltar as “piracy”, in contrast to Iran’s actions on Friday which were “to uphold international maritime rules”.
He added that the UK “must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US”.
In addition to the further political aggravation of the situation, Friday’s events have also sparked debate about the UK’s military capabilities, with critics arguing that the Stena Impero could have had better protection.
Speaking to Sky News on Sunday morning, defence minister Tobias Ellwood refuted these claims, arguing that it takes time to formulate a response to a situation that has “ratcheted up in the last few weeks”. However, he did concede that more money needs to be invested in defence.
The seizure of the vessel is “part of a wider geopolitical challenge that Iran is facing with the West,” he added, suggesting that the first priority should be to de-escalate tensions, and only then can the UK “look at the wider picture of having a working, proper, professional relationship with Iran”.