The United Kingdom said it would join the United States in a new “international maritime security mission” to protect merchant vessels in the Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tension with Iran.
The move follows a spate of incidents – including the seizure of ships – involving Iran and Western powers, in particular the U.K. and the U.S., centered on the vital Gulf thoroughfare.
“The UK is determined to ensure her shipping is protected from unlawful threats and for that reason we have joined the new maritime security mission in the Gulf,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Monday, August 5.
“The deployment of the Royal Navy assets is a sign of our commitment to our U.K.-flagged vessels and we look forward to working alongside the U.S. and others to find an international solution to the problems in the Strait of Hormuz.”
‘Constructive discussions’ in Bahrain
According to a U.K. government release, the move followed “constructive discussions at an international conference in Bahrain last week.”
The international mission will “largely draw on assets already in the region to increase inter-state maritime cooperation,” the release said. The UK has also “offered to lead one of the mission’s Maritime Task Groups,” although “exact operational details are being determined.”
A international maritime task force is already in place in the Persian Gulf under the auspices of the 33-nation Combined Maritime Forces, based in Bahrain and under U.S. command.
Combined Task Force 152 is designed to enhance naval cooperation in the region, conducting maritime security operations operates and coordinating security cooperation with regional partners. CTF 152 consists of ships, aircraft and personnel from states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, the U.K. and the United States. France, Australia and Italy have also participated in the task force.
The tiny gulf monarchy hosted a Gulf maritime security conference at the end of July “to discuss the current regional situation and to strengthen cooperation” in the region.
Manama did not specify who attended the conference, but the Guardian reported a day earlier that the United Kingdom had called for a meeting in Bahrain with other European countries and the U.S., and UAE-based The National reported that delegates from France “and other European states” were also expected to attend the meeting.
UK ‘committed’ to maintaining nuclear deal
The U.K. move marks an apparent shift in policy under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In July the U.K. said it wanted to form a European-led maritime mission in the Gulf. Then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that plan could complement U.S. proposals, but “it will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign on Iran,” because the U.K. supports the preservation of the 2015 nuclear deal.
“This deployment will reinforce security and provide reassurance for shipping,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a Monday statement.
“Our aim is to build the broadest international support to uphold freedom of navigation in the region, as protected under international law.”
But Raab insisted that despite joining the mission the U.K.’s approach to Iran had not changed.
“We remain committed to working with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate the situation and maintain the nuclear deal,” he said.
The U.S. has been struggling to piece together an international coalition to protect cargo ships traveling through the Gulf, with allies concerned about being dragged into conflict with Iran.
The U.S. military’s Central Command announced last month that it is developing a multinational maritime operation in the Persian Gulf in light of escalating tensions with Iran in the region, but the operation the U.K. has now joined is not expressly part of this plan.
“The goal of Operation Sentinel is to promote maritime stability, ensure safe passage, and de-escalate tensions in international waters” throughout the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman, CENTCOM said in a July 19 statement.
The 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,” CENTCOM said.
The command did not list any partners or give a timetable for the launch of the operation.
European countries have been reticent about the U.S. plan, and on Sunday, Australia became the latest ally seeming to give the plan a wide berth.
Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds told the visiting U.S. secretaries of state and defence that their “very serious” and “complex” request would be given “very serious consideration” – but stopped short of offering a full response.
“But we will ultimately, as we always do, decide what is in our own sovereign interests,” she told Mike Pompeo and the newly confirmed Pentagon chief Mark Esper who was on his maiden overseas trip.
On Monday, Germany said it was currently “not in favour” of joining an American-led coalition.
“The important thing is to continue to follow the path of diplomacy and to seek dialogue with Iran … to ensure the free movement of oil tankers in the Gulf,” said government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer.
Meanwhile, Iran’s top diplomat said that U.S. allies are too “ashamed” to join its forces in the Gulf.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Monday that the U.S. is “alone in the world and cannot create a coalition. Countries that are its friends are too ashamed of being in a coalition with them.”
“Why form a global coalition? America is responsible for tensions in the Persian Gulf, in the world,” Zarif told a news conference.
The British announcement will be seen as a boost to U.S. President Donald Trump as he continues to step up a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran.
Last year he withdrew the U.S. from the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal placing curbs on Iran’s nuclear program and began reimposing sanctions, urging reluctant Western allies to follow suit.
London has sought to distance itself from Trump’s hardline stance, insisting along with other European backers of the accord that it could still be salvaged, while trying to remain a steadfast U.S. ally.
But it has found that balancing act increasingly difficult to maintain following a flare-up in relations with Iran over shipping.
Tensions over tankers
The U.S. and U.K. have joined Gulf allies in accusing Iran of being behind several mysterious attacks on tankers in recent months, which Iran denies.
Then on July 4, British authorities in a government of Gibraltar-led operation seized an Iranian tanker on suspicion of breaching European Union sanctions against Syria.
Tensions escalated on July 19 when Iran impounded a British-flagged tanker with its 23 crew aboard as it passed through the Strait – the world’s busiest oil shipping lane.
Iranian authorities said the ship had collided with a fishing vessel then failed to respond to distress calls, as well as turning off its transponder.
On July 22, the U.K. ordered its navy to escort British-flagged ships in the Strait of Hormuz in response to Iranian soldiers seizing its tanker in the flashpoint entrance to the Gulf.
Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan arrived last week to help accompany vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. The destroyer will replace HMS Montrose, which is due to come off-task for pre-planned maintenance and crew change over.
The Montrose is stationed in Bahrain until 2022 to spare other British warships the trip to and from the United Kingdom and ensure a permanent presence in the region.
On Sunday, Iranian state media said it had seized another foreign tanker in the Gulf.
With reporting from AFP