U.K. says seizure of vessels by Iran's Revolutionary Guard 'completely unacceptable'
British oil tanker Stena Impero captured Friday, Liberian vessel reportedly released
Iran's Revolutionary Guard said it captured British oil tanker Stena Impero in the Persian Gulf on Friday after Britain seized an Iranian vessel earlier this month, further raising tensions along a vital international oil shipping route.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said said Iran's seizure of the Stena Impero — as well as a Liberian-flagged vessel that was boarded by armed personnel in the Strait of Hormuz — was "completely unacceptable" and called for freedom of navigation in the Gulf.
"We will respond in a way that is considered but robust," Hunt said. "We are not looking at military options, we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation but we are very clear that it must be resolved.
"If freedom of navigation is restricted Iran is the biggest loser, it is in their interests to resolve this situation as quickly as possible."
Hunt said he had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo to discuss the situation, and expected to speak to his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, who he said was currently on a plane.
The U.S. military said that unarmed surveillance aircraft were in international airspace, monitoring the Strait of Hormuz and had been in contact with U.S. ships in the area.
"We have patrol aircraft operating in international airspace monitoring the situation within the Strait of Hormuz," said Lt.-Col. Earl Brown, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson.
"U.S. Naval Forces Central Command has been in contact with U.S. ships operating in the area to ensure their safety," Brown said.
Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management said in a statement that the British vessel was approached by unidentified small craft and a helicopter while the vessel was in international waters in the strait.
The Revolutionary Guard's website, sepahnews.com, said the British tanker was seized Friday by Revolutionary Guard forces for "non-compliance with international maritime laws and regulations" and has transferred the vessel to an Iranian port.
The report did not elaborate what port it was transferred to. IRNA, Iran's state news agency, said the tanker had turned off its tracker and ignored warnings.
The Stena Impero's British operator, however, said the vessel was in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations.
There are 23 people aboard and there have been no reported injuries, according to the statement from Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management.
"The priority of both vessel owner Stena Bulk and ship manager Northern Marine Management is the safety and welfare of the crew," the statement read.
An Iranian news agency said the other tanker, the Mesdar, had not been seized but had been issued a warning. Its British operator, Norbulk Shipping, said the Liberian-registered vessel had been boarded by armed personnel and it was for a while unable to contact the vessel.
"Communication has been re-established with the vessel and master confirmed that the armed guards have left and the vessel is free to continue the voyage. All crew are safe and well," it said.
'Nothing but trouble'
Hunt said Britain's ambassador in Tehran was in contact with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to resolve the situation and that Britain was working closely with international partners.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Iran is "nothing but trouble," but added that he thinks that the standoff with Tehran will eventually work out "very nicely."
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said "Iran is showing their colours" with the seizures. He said "Iran is in big trouble right now" because its economy has been crippled by economic sanctions and said it would be easy to straighten out the problem, or to make it worse.
Relations between Iran and the West have been increasingly strained after Britain seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
"The U.S. will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran's malign behaviour," White House national security council spokesperson Garrett Marquis said.
Earlier, Britain said it was urgently seeking further information after the tanker, which had been heading to a port in Saudi Arabia, suddenly changed course after passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.
"We condemn unreservedly the capture of Stena Impero as she transited the Strait of Hormuz earlier today," Bob Sanguinetti, the chief executive of the U.K. Chamber of Shipping, said in a statement.
"This incident represents an escalation. Whilst we call for measured response, it is also clear that further protection for merchant vessels must be forthcoming to ensure enhanced security to guarantee free flow of trade in the region."
Refinitiv data on its movements showed it had been en route to Jubail in Saudi Arabia. Another map tracking the location of the Stena Impero showed it making a sharp turn in the Strait of Hormuz, at the southern entrance to the Gulf, and heading toward Iranian waters.
U.S., Iran disputing drone incident
Tehran and Washington, meanwhile, continued to spar Friday over Trump's claim that a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian drone near the Persian Gulf in another escalation of tensions between the two countries.
The Iranian military said all its drones had returned safely to their bases, and denied there was any confrontation with a U.S. vessel the previous day.
"We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else," tweeted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.
Trump fired back on Friday from the Oval office, saying: "No doubt about it. We shot it down."
A senior Trump administration said earlier during a briefing that the U.S. has "clear evidence" that it shot down a drone on Thursday and warned it will destroy any Iranian drones that fly too closely to its ships.
Later Friday, Iran's state television aired footage that it said disproved Trump's assertion.
The video, published by the Revolutionary Guards, showed aerial views of warships. The television station said the drone had captured the footage, and timing notations showed the drone was still filming after Washington said it had been downed in the Strait of Hormuz.
Watch the footage Iran says disproves U.S. claim:
The strategically vital strait is at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and serves as the passageway for one-fifth of all global crude exports. Oil prices ticked upward Friday on the news.
Trump on Thursday said the USS Boxer took defensive action after an Iranian drone closed to within about 900 metres of the warship and ignored multiple calls to stand down.
Trump blamed Iran for "provocative and hostile" action, and said the U.S. responded in self defence.
Neither Trump nor the Pentagon spelled out how the Boxer destroyed the drone. CNN reported the ship used electronic jamming to bring it down rather than hitting it with a missile.
After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and imposed economic sanctions on Tehran, the Iranians pushed back on the military front, shooting down a U.S. drone on June 20.
Trump said he had ordered a retaliatory military strike, but called it off at the last moment because the risk of casualties was disproportionate to the downing by Iran, which did not cost any U.S. lives.
Adding to the economic pressure on Tehran, the U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday it was imposing sanctions on what it called a network of front companies and agents involved in helping Iran buy sensitive materials for its nuclear program. It said the targeted individuals and entities are based in Iran, China and Belgium.
Zarif suggested in New York as he arrived for a meeting at the United Nations that Iran could immediately ratify an agreement to allow broader inspections of its nuclear facilities by UN inspectors if the U.S. dropped its sanctions.
China urged Washington to consider the offer, calling it "a positive signal that Iran is willing to seek a compromise solution."
The Pentagon said Thursday's incident happened in international waters while the Boxer was entering the Gulf. The Boxer is among several U.S. navy ships in the area, including the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier that has been operating in the North Arabian Sea for weeks in response to rising tensions.
The Iranians and Americans have had close encounters in the Strait of Hormuz in the past, and it is not unprecedented for Iran to fly a drone near a U.S. warship.
With files from Reuters