Photo Credit: Sayyed Shahab-o-Din Vajedi via Wikimedia
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval commando training in the Strait of Hormuz

Britain has moved its threat level to Level 3 and is debating its next step after two of its oil tankers were seized Friday by Iranian soldiers and forced to sail into Iranian territorial waters on Friday.

READ: Iran Ups the Ante, Seizing British Container with Crew of 23

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The UK-flagged Stena Impero was transiting through the Strait of Hormuz with 23 crew aboard when it was seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps late Friday, rappelling down from a helicopter down on to the deck of the tanker. Maritime trackers showed the vessel was headed to a port in Saudi Arabia when it was forced by the IRGC into Iranian territorial waters. A second British-owned Liberian-flagged tanker, the MV Mesdar was also seized but later released.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Saturday after a “fairly long conversation” with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, that Iran sees Friday’s seizure of the British tankers as a “tit-for-tat situation” after the detention of Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar.

However, as Hunt pointed out, “Nothing could be further from the truth. Grace 1 was detained legally in Gibraltarian waters because it was carrying oil against EU sanctions to Syria, and that’s why Gilbraltarian authorities acted totally with respect to due process and totally within the law.

“The Stena Impero was seized in Omani waters in clear contravention of international law. It was then forced to sail into Iran. This is totally and utterly unacceptable. It raises very serious questions about the security of British shipping and indeed international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz,” Hunt said.

“Our priority continues to be to find a way to de-escalate the situation. That’s why I reached out to the Iranian foreign minister, that’s why due process in Gibraltar continues. But, we need to see due process happening in Iran as well. We need to see the illegal seizing of a British-flagged vessel reversed, we need that ship released, and we continue to be very concerned about the safety and welfare of the 23 crew members,” Hunt added.

In the meantime, Britain’s Transport Secretary raised the threat level to Level 3. “But we will take further measures and announce those measures going forward on Monday,” Hunt said.

Also on Friday, President Donald Trump told reporters in a brief impromptu news conference at the White House the U.S. would “talk to the UK” about Iran’s seizure of the British tankers.

“We have a very close alliance with the UK. We always have. The United States has very few tankers going in because we’re using our own energy now; we’ve made a lot of progress over the last two and a half years. So we don’t have many tankers going in, but we have a lot of ships there that are warships, and we’ll talk to the UK . . . and we have no written agreement but we have an agreement; they’ve been a very great ally of ours.”

The United States also announced Friday the development of a multinational plan to increase protection in key international waterways after the Iranian seizure of the British vessels.

Central Command said in a statement the new maritime effort, which involves increased surveillance and security, was to be called “Operation Sentinel” and would focus on the waterways in the Middle East.

“The goal of Operation Sentinel is to promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions in international waters throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (BAM) and the Gulf of Oman,” Central Command said in its statement.

“This maritime security framework will enable nations to provide escort to their flagged vessels while taking advantage of the cooperation of participating nations for coordination and enhanced maritime domain awareness and surveillance.”

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