London condemned Tehran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf and said it was operating legally in Omani territorial waters when it was seized by Iranian forces.
The comments came on July 20 as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) released a video of its speedboats pulling alongside the oil tanker, followed by ski-mask clad troops rappelling to the ship’s deck from a helicopter.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the British government is drawing up plans for sanctioning the Iranian government, which may be announced as soon as on Sunday. Measures might include asset freezes as well as a diplomatic push for EU and UN sanctions against Tehran.
If Britain takes such an initiative and it is successful, it would be the first time since 2016 for any multilateral sanctions being imposed on Iran.
Germany, France and some other European countries have already voiced serious concerns over Iran's seizure of the oil tanker and might be inclined to support punitive measures. However, any sanctions efforts at the UN would meet Russian and Chinese resistance.
Recent actions in and around the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, have lifted tensions between Tehran and the West to new heights, raising fears of an armed conflict and driving up oil prices and shipping insurance rates worldwide.
British Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt on July 20 called Iran’s seizing of the Stena Impero tanker a "hostile act,” while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had expressed "extreme disappointment" in a phone call with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Zarif told Hunt that the ship -- which Iran claims broke international law -- must go through a legal process before it can be released, the news agency reported.
Over the past 24 hours, the British government has held two meetings of its COBRA emergency council.
After the first meeting, Hunt said Tehran was on a "dangerous path" and threatened the Iran with "considered but robust" action.
Following the second meeting, Hunt said Britain had a "desire to de-escalate" even as he stressed that the Stena Impero seizure was "in clear contravention of international law.
In a letter to the UN Security Councils seen by news agencies on July 20, Britain said the tanker was in Omani territorial waters exercising its lawful right of passage when approached by Iranian forces.
"We do not seek confrontation with Iran," the letter said. "But it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to threaten shipping going about its legitimate business through internationally recognized transit corridors."
Meanwhile, Iran’s IRGC posted a video online showing speedboats pulling alongside the tanker, with its name clearly visible. Troops in ski masks and armed with machine guns rappelled to the ship’s deck from a helicopter.
In that incident, as reported on 11 July, the Royal Navy’s HMS Montrose positioned itself between the tanker and the Iranian boats and aimed its guns at them.
During the new incident on Friday, however, "Britain has admitted its nearest warship was one hour away from the merchant vessel seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday and could do nothing to help,” The Telegraph wrote on 20 July.
The same tactics were used by British Royal Marines on July 4 seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar on suspicions it was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
That move brought condemnation from Tehran and threats from the IRGC to capture a British ship in retaliation, nearly two weeks before the Stena Impero was taken.
The Iranian tanker and crew remain impounded by Gibraltar authorities, while the Stena Impero is being held by Iranian authorities in the port of Bandar Abbas. Iranian officials say it will remain there with its 23 crew – mostly Indian citizens, but reportedly also Russians, and others --- while the incident is investigated.
Iran has said the tanker was seized after it was involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat, something Britain and the ship operators have denied.