Divisions With U.S. Emerge As U.K. Proposes European Force To Protect Tankers From Iran

The two long-standing allies are increasingly at odds, and publicly so, over how to respond to Iranian provocations.

Morteza Akhoondi/Tasnim News Agency

Three days after Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, U.K. authorities have announced plans to safeguard the country's commercial shipping interests in the region, including establishing a new European-led maritime task force.  At the same time, the U.K. government has pointedly said that its policies will be separate from those of its U.S. counterparts, exposing a notable rift between the two allies on how to respond to escalating tensions in the region.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined the U.K. government's immediate response plan to the Stena Impero's capture in a statement to the country's parliament on July 22, 2019. The IRGC boarded and took control of the tanker, which U.K.-based Northern Marine Management operates and that Swedish shipping company Stena A.B. owns, as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz on July 19, 2019. Iran claims that the ship was "violating international maritime rules," but has yet to specify what rules the ship was in breach of or provide any evidence to substantiate this assertion. For weeks, Iranian officials had threatened to seize a British ship in a tit-for-tat retaliatory act over U.K. authorities continuing to impound the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 over sanctions violations.

"I ... urge Iran to release the Stena Impero and her crew and observe the rules that safeguard commercial shipping that benefit Iran as much as any other country," Hunt said in his statement to Parliament. "Iran has tried to present this as a tit-for-tat incident following the Government of Gibraltar’s action on 4 July to enforce E.U. [European Union] sanctions by preventing the Iranian chartered tanker Grace 1 from supplying oil to Syria, but there is simply no comparison between Iran’s illegal seizure of a vessel inside a recognized shipping lane where the Stena Impero had every right to be and the enforcement of E.U. sanctions against a tanker that had freely navigated into the waters of a British overseas territory."

Though the ship is British-flagged, there are no British nationals among Stena Impero's 23-member crew, which includes a mix of Indians, Filipinos, Russians, and Latvians. India, at least, has begun separate negotiations to secure the release and repatriation of its citizens from the British-flagged ship, as well as from the Riah, another tanker Iran recently seized over allegations of fuel smuggling.

After his opening summary of the situation, which he called a "hostile act," Hunt then formally announced that the U.K. Department for Transport had advised all British-flagged ships to avoid Iranian waters and the Strait of Hormuz, something that had been previously reported. He also asked that any British-flagged ships that insisted on making the transit alert U.K. authorities of their decision "to enable us to offer the best protection we can." 

There are already fears that this may have farther reaching impacts on international trade, especially the price of oil, if operators and owners in other countries follow suit and begin avoiding sailing through the region.

Despite the advisories, HMS Duncan, one of the U.K. Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyers, which are some of the service's largest and most capable surface combatants, is rushing to the region to relieve the smaller Type 23 frigate HMS Monstrose and will be on call to escort any British ships in the area. The United Kingdom had also previously announced this swap-out. Montrose has already escorted a number of ships safely through the Strait of Hormuz, but was reportedly an hour away from Stena Impero when the IRGC captured her.

Brian Burnell via Wikimedia

HMS Duncan.

Lastly and most importantly, Hunt said that the United Kingdom was working to create a European maritime protection mission to further protect shipping in the region and that HMS Duncan would eventually join that multi-national force. It is not clear if the U.K. government's plan is for this to be a European Union-led mission, given that the United Kingdom is separately working to extricate itself from that political and economic bloc as part of a process commonly known as Brexit.

"We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region," Hunt said. "The new force will be focused on free navigation, bearing in mind that one-fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquefied natural gas, and trade worth half a trillion dollars pass through the Strait of Hormuz every year."

Press Association via AP Images

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrives at No. 10 Downing Street to attend a meeting on July 22, 2019, that Prime Minister Teresa May had called to discuss the situation regarding the Stena Impero.

Hunt said that he had spoken with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, earlier in the day, and that he had discussed how the U.K. government's proposed European maritime force might complement U.S. military-led efforts in the region. On July 19, 2019, U.S. Central Command had announced the beginning of Operation Sentinel, a proposed multi-national effort with many of the same general objectives as the plan Hunt has now announced.

"The responsibility … falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships," Pompeo had said on Fox and Friends earlier on July 22, 2019, though it's unclear if this came before or after his call with Hunt. "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."

Department of State

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Some had criticized Pompeo for not appearing to offer sufficient support for one of America's longest-standing allies. But whether or not his comments were a snub to the British government, it is hard not to see Hunt's subsequent statement as a very and public rebuttal of U.S. policy toward Iran.

Hunt made clear that the proposed European maritime mission would be separate from the U.S-led Operation Sentinel. "It will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran, because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement," he added. The United States pulled out of the multi-national deal over Iran's controversial nuclear program, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018.

Since then, the United Kingdom, along with France and Germany, have struggled to keep the deal alive, going so far as to create a financial mechanism to help work around U.S. sanctions against Iran. Iranian authorities have still accused the European powers of failing to adhere to the agreement and recently began enriching uranium above the limits outlined in the JCPOA. So far, this seems to be a calculated and reversible decision aimed at forcing additional concessions from the European trio.

At the same time, the United States has placed increasingly painful sanctions on Iran, particularly on its oil exports, as part of the aforementioned "maximum pressure" campaign. Since May 2019, tensions between the United States and Iran have been steadily escalating after the U.S. government announced that it had still nebulous intelligence that pointed to increased risks of attacks from Iran and its regional proxies on American interests across the Middle East. In June 2019, the situation reached a boiling point when the U.S. military almost launched strikes against Iran after the IRGC shot down a U.S. Navy drone flying over the Gulf of Oman.

There have also been reports that the United States is stepping up covert and clandestine actions against Iran, including cyber-attacks. These activities may have now taken a blow since Iran announced on July 22, 2019, that it had broken up a spy ring that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had formed in the country. A total of 17 Iranian nationals were sentenced to death or long prison sentences as a result. 

Trump and Pompeo have both denied the Iranian claims, but the regime in Tehran has insinuated that they had been able to uncover the spies by exploiting compromised communications software the CIA had distributed to its contacts.

However, Yahoo News had first reported on this security breach among the CIA's contacts in Iran, citing numerous anonymous sources, in November 2018. This was also how China reportedly busted up a CIA spy network, which had led to dozens of executions in that country.

At the same time, the increasingly aggressive U.S. policy toward Iran, and concerns that it might explode into a broader regional conflict, only appears to be deepening a divide between U.K. authorities and President Donald Trump's Administration that has been growing for years. This has been due to a number of issues, including Trump's persistent criticism of America's European allies, saying they are not contributing their fair share to the NATO alliance. 

Recently, Kim Darroch, the U.K. Ambassador to the United States resigned after a leak of diplomatic cables in which he was highly critical of the Trump Administration, saying the President himself was "inept," "clumsy,"  and "incompetent." After the IRGC seized Stena Impero, U.K. authorities reportedly asked if Trump could avoid making any inflammatory statements or threats toward Iran that could upset their negotiations to get the tanker released.

The United Kingdom has also worked hard to separate the matter of Grace 1 and Stena Imperso from both the issues surrounding the JCPOA and the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. There are unconfirmed reports that the United Kingdom detained Grace 1 on intelligence from the United States, though the U.K. government says it is in violation of E.U. sanctions targeted at Syria. Foreign Secretary Hunt has said the United Kingdom could release the Iranian tanker if Iran can provide firm evidence that it was headed to a different country as the regime in Tehran claims. There is also a claim that the United Kingdom rejected offers of U.S. military support to guard British ships in the Strait of Hormuz to avoid getting wrapped up in U.S.-Iran tensions.

It remains to be seen how the United Kingdom's latest statements might impact the ongoing negotiations over the fate of both tankers. Though it clear that the U.K. government's position is that Iran has illegally detained Stena Impero and her crew, Iranian authorities have to be cognizant of the fact that the United Kingdom has very publicly broken ranks with the United States over the issue of "maximum pressure" and about maritime policing in and around the Strait of Hormuz. 

U.S. officials must also be aware of the significance of this rift over how to tackle Iran, which is certainly not a benign actor in the region, becoming so public. American allies actively working in opposition to the maximum pressure campaign can only undermine whatever effects it might have in curbing Iran's malign behavior.

How the United States and the United Kingdom go from here may not only determine how the two countries do or don't cooperate with regards to Iran, but also how their long-standing "special relationship" might evolve going forward, in general.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com