Royal Navy to escort British-flagged vessels in contentious Hormuz waters

The Royal Navy will accompany "British-flagged vessels" through the Strait of Hormuz to defend freedom of navigation, after previously saying it did not have the military resources to do so.

British government changes tack as European mission has yet to come together

A Royal Navy patrol vessel, left, guards the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 on July 20 in the Strait of Gibraltar as it sits anchored after it was seized earlier in the month. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

The U.K. government said on Thursday its navy will accompany "British-flagged vessels" through the Strait of Hormuz to defend freedom of navigation, after previously saying it did not have the military resources to do so.

Tensions have spiked between Iran and Britain since the Islamic Republic last Friday seized a tanker in the strait. Its move came after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar that Britain said was heading for Syria in defiance of EU sanctions.

The U.K. government previously advised its flagged vessels not to pass through the Strait of Hormuz and notify the navy if they plan to do so.

"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," a U.K. government spokesperson said.

"Freedom of navigation is crucial for the global trading system and world economy, and we will do all we can to defend it," he added in a statement.

HMS Montrose, a British frigate now in the area, will accompany the vessels. The Department for Transport is advising shipping companies to give sufficient notice of their travel plans so they can be protected.

On any given day, about 15 to 30 large British-flagged ships travel through the Gulf, with up to three passing through the Strait of Hormuz. About one-fifth of the world's oil passes through the strait, and shipping companies are already deploying more unarmed security guards as an extra safeguard.

An oil tanker is seen on fire in the Gulf of Oman on June 13. A series of attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf has ratcheted up international tensions in recent months. (File/The Associated Press)

On July 10 the Montrose saw off an apparent attempt by Iranian vessels to block the passage of a British oil tanker at the northern entrance of Hormuz.

On July 19, the Montrose warned an Iranian patrol boat against interfering with the Stena Impero, but the Iranian vessel, apparently undeterred, proceeded to instruct the oil tanker to alter course and later seized it.

The cost of insuring a ship sailing through the region has risen tenfold as risks have risen, which has also prompted some ship owners to avoid the area entirely.

"The key issue with the escorts is the rules of engagement," said Mark Gray, a retired colonel with Britain's Royal Marines.

"The vessels must have the authorization to fire warning shots, and also, if necessary, target rounds against boats and helicopters. If not, the Iranians will call our bluff and board, even if escorted," said Gray, co-founder of British company MNG Maritime, which runs a U.K.-regulated floating armoury off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

Talks in Florida to discuss maritime protection

Britain has been seeking to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz after Iran's seizure of the tanker in what London said was an act of "state piracy."

France, Italy and Denmark support the idea, three EU diplomats said on Tuesday, but Germany has said it is too early to discuss how Berlin might take part.

Canada says it has no plans to contribute a ship to the nascent navy coalition either.

"At this point we have not received any specific request from Britain regarding this issue," said Todd Lane, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Newly installed Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday the U.S. military intends to protect American commercial ships against Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz but will not provide naval escorts in every case.

The United States, Britain and other nations will be meeting in Florida on Thursday to discuss how to protect shipping in the Gulf from Iran.

Washington, which has by far the strongest Western naval contingent in the Gulf, has been calling for its allies to join it in an operation to guard shipping there. But European countries, which disagree with a U.S. decision to impose sanctions on Iran, have been reluctant to sign up to a U.S.-led mission for fear of adding to tension in the region.

Iran has also vowed to secure the strait, and said it will not allow any disturbance in shipping there, state news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi as saying on Tuesday.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press