The UK has warned of ‘serious consequences’ after Iran seized a British oil tanker in the Gulf.
It is a major escalation of tensions in the volatile region, which the Government has said is ‘unacceptable.’
On Friday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard launched a guerrilla-style attack to confiscate the Stena Impero as it passed through international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the tanker was surrounded by four vessels and a helicopter as it approached Iranian waters around 5.30pm.
This morning, Iran tried to claim that the British-flagged tanker was in an accident with a fishing boat.
The rogue nation claimed the Stena Impero ignored a distress call from the fisherman, which is why it was confiscated.
The vessel is now impounded at Iran’s military Bandar Abbas port and all its 23 crew members are not allowed to leave.
Head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, said: ‘It got involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat… When the boat sent a distress call, the British-flagged ship ignored it.
‘The tanker is now at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port and all of its 23 crew members will remain on the ship until the probe is over.’
Stena Bulk, which owns the Stena Impero, said the ship was in ‘full compliance with all navigation and international regulations’.
There are no reported injuries among the 23 crew members, who are Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino.
Security officials have now warned UK shipping to avoid the Strait of Hormuz ‘for an interim period’ after a spate of attacks by Iran.
On Friday, a second oil tanker which is managed by Norbulk Shipping UK, was also boarded by armed Iranian guards.
The crew of the Liberian-flagged MV Mesdar were unharmed and it was eventually allowed to continue on its way.
1/2 Yesterday's action in Gulf shows worrying signs Iran may be choosing a dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour after Gibraltar’s LEGAL detention of oil bound for Syria.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 20, 2019
2/2 As I said yesterday our reaction will be considered but robust. We have been trying to find a way to resolve Grace1 issue but WILL ensure the safety of our shipping.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 20, 2019
Last week, the Royal Navy thwarted a bid by Iran to storm the British Heritage oil tanker as it passed through the strategically important Strait of Hormuz.
The move was a retaliation by Iran against the UK after Royal Marines stopped an Iranian oil tanker, Grace 1, in Gibraltar.
The vessel was suspected of violating EU sanctions by carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil to war-ravaged Syria.
Iran called the seizure ‘an act of piracy’ and warned the UK of consequences.
On Friday night, the government convened its emergency committee, Cobra, twice in response to the growing crisis.
Mr Hunt said the seizures were ‘completely unacceptable’ and ‘freedom of navigation must be maintained.’
He added: ‘We are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly there will be serious consequences.
‘We are not looking at military options. We are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve this situation but we are very clear that is must be resolved.’
A government spokesperson added: ‘As the Foreign Secretary has said, our response will be considered and robust and there will be serious consequences if the situation is not resolved.’
The Strait of Hormuz is the only route for 20% of the world’s oil and a third of the global gas supply to pass through, according to the UK Chamber of Shipping.
Oil and gas prices could rise if the conflict is not resolved.
US President Donald Trump last night called Iran ‘nothing but trouble’ adding: ‘It goes to show I was right about Iran.’
He said he would talk to the UK about what happens next.
The US has already been making plans to boost its military presence in the region and has been wanting more international support.
Washington called off an air strike last month after Iran shot down an unmanned US drone.
In the early hours of this morning, the US Secretary of Defence Richard Spencer announced he is sending several hundred troops as well as missiles to Saudi Arabia to counter Iran.
The Royal Navy has HMS Montrose in the region, which will soon be joined by HMS Duncan.
Tensions began to build between Iran and the west after Trump pulled the US out of a 2015 deal, which curbed Iran’s nuclear programme.
He then imposed crippling economic sanctions and ordered all countries to halt the purchase of Iranian oil.
That has now effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue that Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million population.
Iran has no benefits to show for agreeing to the nuclear arrangement and there are now signs it is enriching uranium again.