Following a meeting of the UK Government’s Cobra emergency committee regarding the seizure of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned the detention by Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Friday 19 July as an “act of state piracy.”

He said “constructive discussions” had taken place with a number of countries over the preceding 48 hours. He has called for a European-led naval force to be set up in the Gulf to protect UK shipping in the region.

Hunt said: “It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary.

“If Iran continues on this dangerous path, they must accept the price will be a larger Western military presence in the waters along their coastline, not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle which Britain and its allies will always defend,” Hunt said in a statement in the Commons.

Hunt also said British-flagged ships were advised against travelling in Iranian waters and the entire Strait of Hormuz.

Following Hunt’s statement, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo said the UK must take care of its own ships. “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships,” Pompeo said in an interview on Fox News, adding, “The US has a responsibility to do its part but the world’s got a big role in this too.”

The tanker seizure

Prior to the seizure, an audio recording of the radio exchanges between Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose and Iranian armed forces vessels was heard where the crew were told by the Iranian ship that they wanted to inspect the tanker for security reasons. In the radio recording, the Iranian vessel can heard be heard telling a ship: “If you obey you will be safe.”

The Swedish-owned, UK-flagged ship and its 23 crew members are now being held at the Port of Bandar Abbas. It wasn’t the only tanker that was seized. A second British-owned Liberian-flagged tanker, the MV Mesdar, was also boarded by armed guards on the same day but was released.

This incident followed just weeks after British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month as the UK claimed the vessel had violated the EU sanctions on Syria. It was then that an Iranian official threatened to seize a British oil tanker in retaliation.

In letter to the president of the United Nations Security Council the UK said Iran’s actions were “unacceptable and highly escalatory” and that “current tensions are extremely concerning, and our priority is to de-escalate.”

Addressing the situation, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif blamed UK’s ongoing trade relations with US. He tweeted that the UK “must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US.”

Impact on maritime and commercial operations

However, apart from the political turmoil, the main concern is the safety for UK ships in international waters. Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, Guy Platten said: “Freedom of navigation is vital for global trade and we encourage all nations to uphold this fundamental principle of maritime law. In the 21st century it is not acceptable for seafarers and ships to become pawns in any way, they must be allowed to operate in safety. We will be reviewing the situation and remain in contact with relevant authorities.”

Platten added: “Freedom of navigation is enshrined in international law, specifically Article 87 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is vital for global trade that all nations uphold this fundamental principle of maritime law. The priority must be the safety of the 23 crew.”

Some also believe the situation can potentially go beyond international relations and affect the business world. Senior director at global investigations firm Kroll, Richard Phelps, said: “The Gulf region is no stranger to maritime risks resulting from geo-political factors, and historically the threat level has oscillated over the years.

“The past two months though have witnessed a major escalation in the threat level, and it is civilian commercial vessels that have particularly borne the brunt of this threat.

UK shipping in the region has halted after the UK Department for Transport requested all British flagged ships to avoid the Strait of Hormuz until further notice.