LONDON — 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.
Briefing Parliament on the budding crisis, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt accused Iran of “an act of state piracy” that will be met with stern international resolve.
He announced precious few details but said Britain’s European allies will play a major role keeping shipping lanes open. One-fifth of all global crude exports passes through the narrow strait between Iran and Oman.
“We will seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of crew and cargo in this vital region,” he said.
“We have had constructive discussion with a number of countries in the last 48 hours and we will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent U.S. proposals in this area.”
Seeks distance from US
He sought to put distance between Britain and its closest international ally, the United States. Washington has broken with London on Iran policy because 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 reimposed 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 not clear which countries will join the protection force Hunt is discussing, or how quickly it can be put in place.
Iranian officials have suggested the seizure was in response to Britain’s role in seizing an Iranian oil tanker two week earlier.
New video released
Iran released new video showing the ship’s crew for the first time Monday, an apparent attempt to show they were unharmed. None of the 23 are British nationals. The crew is mostly Indian, and includes Filipino, Russian and Latvian nationals.
British Prime Minister Theresa May chaired an emergency security session to discuss how to respond to Iran’s actions.
May’s official spokesman, James Slack, said giving an individual naval escort to all U.K.-flagged ships is not an option because of the volume of traffic. But he denied cuts have made the Royal Navy too small.
“We have the largest military budget in Europe, and we are investing in a world-class Royal Navy,” he said.
Maritime industry publication Lloyd’s List said there are currently no U.K.-flagged ships heading to the Persian Gulf and eight U.K.-flagged vessels anchored there after a government advisory to such vessels to avoid the Strait of Hormuz.
The tanker crisis is unfolding in the final days of 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.
Friday’s seizure of the Stena Impero came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran as the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers unravels. The U.S. has expanded its military presence in the region, while Iran has begun openly exceeding the uranium enrichment levels set in the accord to try to pressure Europe into alleviating the pain caused by the sanctions.
EU efforts clash with Trump
European nations are trying to save the nuclear deal and have tried to come up with ways to keep trading with Iran but have run smack into Trump’s sanctions, which also target Iranian oil exports.
Iranian officials say the seizure of the British oil tanker was a justified response to the Royal Navy’s role impounding its Grace 1 supertanker with some 2 million barrels of crude off the coast of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located on the southern tip of Spain.
Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei said Monday that there are diplomatic solutions to the current crisis, but he also defended Iran’s actions.
“When you illegally seize a ship in Gibraltar… we don’t deem it as necessary to show tolerance,” he said. “Some countries have asked for the immediate release of the British tanker. Well, we ask those countries to make the same request to Britain first.”
Britain says it acted lawfully off the Gibraltar coast to prevent illegal oil shipments to Syria that would have violated European Union sanctions while Iran broke international maritime law by forcing the Stena Impero to change course and go to Iran.
Tanker location disputed
Britain says the tanker was in Omani waters at the time, which Iran disputes.
In the newly released video on Monday, the Stena Impero crew is seen dressed in red uniforms and seated around a table onboard as an unidentified Iranian man is heard thanking them for their cooperation. A cameraman is heard telling them not to look at the camera.
It wasn’t clear if the crew was under duress to take part in the filming.
Other choreographed shots show a man checking on the ship, the crew sharing a laugh and talking next to a coffee machine inside the ship. The crew’s chefs are seen preparing food. Another video released by Iran’s state broadcaster shows Iran’s flag hoisted on the ship’s bridge.
Meanwhile, officials in Gibraltar say the ship’s crew has been kept on board the vessel since its seizure July 4. Four Indian crewmembers, including the ship’s captain, were arrested, but not charged, and were then bailed. Gibraltar says they have been in contact with their families are receiving consular support. The crew is comprised of Indian, Pakistani and Ukrainian nationals.
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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.