DUBAI/LONDON, July 22 (Reuters)
Britain called on Monday for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, days after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in what London described as an act of "state piracy".
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined the plans to parliament after a meeting of COBR, the government's emergency committee, which discussed London's response to Friday's capture of the Stena Impero tanker by Iranian commandos at sea.
"Under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship's passage - let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy," Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament.
"We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region," Hunt said.
The British announcement signals a potential shift from Washington's major European allies who so far have been cool to U.S. requests that they beef up their military presence in the Gulf, for fear of feeding the confrontation there.
Nevertheless, Hunt made a point of saying that the proposal would not involve contributing European military power to back Washington's hardline stance against Iran.
Washington's major European allies Britain, France and Germany all opposed a decision last year by U.S. President Donald Trump to abandon an international agreement that promised Iran access to trade in return for accepting curbs on its nuclear programme.
The new mission "will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement", Hunt said.
The Europeans have tried to stay neutral as tension has risen between Tehran and Washington. But Britain was plunged directly into the crisis on July 4 when it seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar accused of violating sanctions on Syria.
Iran repeatedly threatened to retaliate, culminating with its seizure of the Stena Impero on Friday using the same tactics - commandos rappelling to the deck from helicopters - that British Royal Marines had used aboard Iran's own ship.
The United States has an aircraft carrier strike group in the Gulf and a navy that is far more powerful than those of all its European allies put together. But it has made a point in recent weeks of saying it cannot protect shipping on its own.
Asked about the capture of the British ship earlier on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "The responsibility ... falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships."