UK Asks British Ships to Avoid Strait of Hormuz

IRGC attack boats (Fars / IRGC)

Published Jul 22, 2019 6:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK's foreign ministry has asked UK-flagged ships to stay away from the Strait of Hormuz, one of the busiest waterways in the world for petroleum shipping, after Iranian forces boarded and seized the British tanker Stena Impero on July 19. 

"The Department of Transport has raised the security level for British-flagged shipping to Level 3, advising against all passage in Iranian waters and, for the moment, in the entire Strait of Hormuz," said UK foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in a statement Monday. "We will ask all British-flagged ships to give us notice of any intention to pass through the Strait of Hormuz to enable us to offer the best protection we can."

The UK is also looking to assemble a European-led maritime security mission for the Strait, focused on freedom of navigation. Hunt emphasized that the force will not be involved in implementing the American "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, consistent with the EU's commitment to sustaining the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

American secretary of state Mike Pompeo suggested Tuesday that the United States would not be providing security for Britain's shipping on its own.

“The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships," Pompeo said Monday in an interview on Fox News. "The United States has a responsibility to do our part but the world's got a big role in this too, to keep these sea lanes open."

The UK has already deployed the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan to boost its presence in the region, and it is said to be sending an Astute-class attack submarine to provide surveillance support. "Its role is a covert intelligence posture, simply gathering information to support the planned escort convoys of tankers," a senior Royal Navy source told the Express. "The Astute-class commands a significant electronic warfare capability and does not actually need to be sat in the Gulf to be effective."

IEA calls for unimpeded passage

The seizure of the Stena Impero has raised concerns that tensions between Iran and the West could lead to higher risks and costs for merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Insurance premiums have already risen considerably, and Iran's parliament proposed Monday that Tehran should collect a fee from vessels transiting through the strategic choke point. 

"We urge the honorable government and president to put on its agenda the issue of collecting toll from the ships which pass through the Strait of Hormuz," the Iranian parliament suggested in a resolution applauding the seizure of the Impero. 

In a statement, the International Energy Agency (IEA) called Monday for respect for freedom of navigation on this critical oil-shipping route. "The IEA considers that the right of free energy transit is critical to the global economy and must be maintained," the agency wrote. It added that the world's energy markets remain well-supplied, and that billions of barrels in reserves worldwide mean that there would still be plenty of oil in the event of disruption in the Middle East. 

Panama takes action on seized UAE tanker

Panama, the flag state for a small product tanker which was seized by Iran on July 14, said Friday that it is withdrawing the vessel's registration. Iran alleges that the tanker, the 1,900 dwt Riah, was engaged in fuel smuggling - a charge that her charterer strongly denies. However, in a statement, Panamanian authorities appeared to agree with Iran's allegations.  

“We roundly condemn the use of Panamanian flagged ships for illicit activities,” the Panama Maritime Authority said in a statement. "Those who clearly violate the laws, conventions and international agreements will be sanctioned and will run the risk that the ship is canceled from the Registry."

The Riah's Equasis record shows that she is owned and operated by firms in the UAE; however, the Emirati government has denied that the vessel has any connections to the nation.