The UK navy is capable of safeguarding shipping in the Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz, the UK’s new minister of state for the Middle East said after the government warned British-flagged vessels not to enter the waterway.
The warning from the UK government came after Iran seized the British flagged Stena Impero tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.
But on a visit to Abu Dhabi on Monday, Andrew Murrison – also a minister of state at the Department for International Development – told The National he is confident the Royal Navy, with its allies, is able to keep shipping safe.
“We’re one of the most capable navies in the world, one of the most sophisticated navies in the world and I’m confident that it will be able to safeguard shipping through the Strait [of Hormuz],” Mr Murrison, a former officer in the Royal Navy, said at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
“But this is an international effort. The nature of this means it is not something that the UK would want to undertake on its own – this has to be in collaboration with others.”
The new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will join a new international task force being put together by the United States to deploy vessels to protect the Arabian Gulf and the vital Strait of Hormuz, a narrow dogleg channel through which a massive amount of the world’s oil supply flows.
The UK has now deployed three warships to the region since the Stena Impero was detained.
HMS Montrose and HMS Kent, both type 23 Duke Class frigates, are already on deployment in the region.
Earlier this week, the Royal Navy announced that the HMS Defender, a type 45 Daring Class vessel, would join the deployment. The UK has a number of other support vessels in the region.
However, questions have been raised in the UK about the capabilities of the navy with Jeremy Hunt, Mr Johnson’s former rival for the top job, saying the service had been “run down too much”.
Since the UK fought the Falklands conflict in 1982, the number of Navy warships has shrunk 75 per cent.
But Mr Murrison pointed out that the UK would not be undertaking to secure shipping in the Gulf region alone as the nature of the issue is international.
"In terms of the Impero, of course, it is a Swedish-owned vessel, it is British-flagged, its crew members are all non-UK nationals which just gives you an indication of how international this issue is," he said.
“What we all have is an interest in the safety of shipping in the Gulf and Hormuz and that is what we are working with others to ensure.”
The Stena Impero was detained by Iran shortly after the Gibraltar Government detained the Iranian Grace 1 supertanker on suspicion of violating EU sanctions by transporting oil to Syria.
The tanker was finally released in August but Mr Murrison was clear that the issue of the Stena Impero and the Grace 1 were distinct and different.
"The apprehension by the government of Gibraltar of the Grace 1 and the detention of Impero are very different and unrelated, in our view. One was in pursuit of EU sanctions and the other was an illegal act so I don't think it's reasonable to compare the two."
As well as the Stena Impero being detained by Iran while in an internationally recognised shipping channel outside Iranian waters, several tankers have been hit in sabotage attacks in recent months.
In May, two Emirati, two Saudi and one Norwegian commercial ship were damaged in the UAE port of Fujairah. Then, in June, explosions hit both the Kokuka Courageous and the Front Altair tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
The US has blamed Iran for both incidents.
Since then there has been a significant escalation between the US and Iran in the region with both sides downing the other’s drones.
Mr Murrison said that the UK’s main focus was returning the situation to normal and “to turn down the temperature in the Gulf … because that’s in Iran’s interest and is certainly in the international community’s interests too.”
He said the US had taken "a slightly different approach that is not one that we share" when it comes to Iran. The two allies were "united in our intent to ensure the safety of shipping in the Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz in particular", Mr Murrison said.
US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal last year and has been ratcheting up pressure on Iran through sanctions ever since. The tensions in the Gulf region have largely revolved around this policy of maximum pressure being pursued by Washington.
“I would say that our approach to the situation with respect to Iran has been focused on trying to de-escalate the situation, find a way through this, which achieves the primary purpose, which is Iran’s return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA.”
In response, Tehran has demanded the European signatories do more to safeguard the benefits Iran gets from the deal or face its collapse. Iran has begun to exceed some of the limits to nuclear enrichment as it seeks more action from Europe.
Mr Murrison said that the special trade mechanism established by France, Germany and the UK, known as Instex, would “ensure that we can give Iran the ability to secure the goods it needs at the moment despite maximum pressure being placed on them by the United States.”
This would, he said, “encourage it [Iran] to return to some of its commitments under the JCPOA.”
“I think that it is an attractive proposition. I know there is frustration on the part of Iran at the slow progress in getting this vehicle up and running but I am confident that it will provide some of what Iran wants,” he said.
However, there are questions over the viability and scale of the programme, with businesses reluctant to sign up in case they suffer repercussions from the US.
But Mr Murrison dismissed concerns, saying “it’s quite a sophisticated financial vehicle and it’s designed to enable businesses to do just that – that’s the whole purpose of it.”