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Britain sends warships to escort tankers in the strategic Strait of Hormuz

The British frigate HMS Montrose, is seen here in the Atlantic Ocean in 2018.

UNITED KINGDOM ROYAL NAVY

By ADAM TAYLOR | The Washington Post | Published: July 25, 2019

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Britain has begun sending navy ships to accompany vessels traveling through the narrow Strait of Hormuz following the seizure of a British-flagged tanker by Iranian forces.

In a statement, Britain's Department of Defense said that "the Royal Navy has been tasked to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz, either individually or in groups, should sufficient notice be given of their passage."

HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, became the first navy ship to offer an escort overnight on Wednesday into Thursday in the narrow waterway, Sky News reported on Thursday, citing shipping industry sources.

Britain made the decision just days after the seizure of the Stena Impero by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a British-flagged tanker, as it as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz on Friday.

Iran subsequently claimed that the Stena Impero was passing through the wrong channels of the strait and had also turned off its signals for longer than allowed.

However, the seizure was widely interpreted as a tit-for-tat measure in response to British marines taking part in the seizure of an Iranian-flagged tanker near Gibraltar, a British overseas territory off the coast of Spain.

Britain said it sent Royal Marines to board and take control of the Grace 1 tanker because it was suspected of transporting oil to Syria, a violation of European Union sanctions targeting Syria's government.

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared to suggest that Tehran would consider releasing the Stena Impero if Britain released the Grace 1.

Britain has previously suggested that seizure of the Iranian tanker needed to be resolved by Gibraltar's courts and called on Iran to provide evidence that the tanker was not en route to Syria.

The seizure of the British-flagged tanker caused consternation in Britain. The country is still in the midst of its protracted attempt to leave the European Union and was in the process of finding a successor for Prime Minister Theresa May when the Stena Impero was taken.

A former head of the Royal Navy wrote in a column in the Guardian after the seizure that the tanker should have been better protected. Audio recordings that later leaked showed that the HMS Montrose had tried to intervene to protect the Stena Impero.

On Monday, Britain's then foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, outlined a vision for a Europe-led plan Monday "to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region." Other nations, including France and Germany, have issued cautious support for the proposal.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Wednesday that it would also be sending its own escorts for U.S.-flagged ships in the region.

"The Brits are escorting their ships," Esper said. "We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it. I assume that other countries will escort their ships."

The United States had previously proposed a coalition that would see nations protect ships that carry their own flag, but also undertake joint operations designed for surveillance of the waterways.

Britain, along with other European nations, had been wary of joining the U.S.-led proposal, however, as they did not want to be associated with the "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran that has been promulgated by the Trump administration.

Hunt, who helped formulated Britain's proposal for a European-led plan, left his position as British foreign secretary on Wednesday after Boris Johnson became Britain's new prime minister. Hunt ran against Johnson in the bid to become British leader.

In an interview with an Iranian state-funded broadcaster, Stanley Johnson, the father of the new prime minister, said that his son had a different view of Iran, because he was a man "with a great sense of history."

The elder Johnson also said that he would thought a tanker swap was the easiest solution to the standoff. "Well, I think the best thing would be to say, we let your ship go and you let our ship go," he said in the interview with Press TV. "Easy peasy."

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