Britain’s HMS Montrose has had 85 ‘interactions’ with Iranian forces in just 27 days of patrolling the Gulf, the commanding officer of the Royal Navy ship has revealed.
Cdr William King revealed a frequent ‘exchange of warnings’ between Britain and Iran as the Montrose scrambles to protect British shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, the world’s busiest oil shipping lane.
Iran has already seized one British ship, the Stena Impero, in retaliation for a Royal Marine operation off Gibraltar and Tehran has hinted its forces could strike again.
Speaking from the Gulf to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Cdr King said Iranian forces had issued threats about the British presence and run fast boats towards the Montrose to test the Royal Navy’s reactions.
However, British sailors have developed a ‘healthy understanding’ with the Iranians and the contact remains ‘professional,’ he said.
Britain’s HMS Montrose (pictured) has had 85 ‘interactions’ with Iranian forces in just 27 days of patrolling the Gulf, the commanding officer of the Royal Navy ship has revealed
The HMS Montrose (pictured in this diagram) has already had to confront Iranian vessels
‘Growing concern’ for Stena Impero crew
Concerns are growing for the crew of a British-flagged tanker seized by Iranian forces, with the ship’s owners calling for more action from the Government.
Tanker shipping company Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management have called for more help for the crew of the Stena Impero, which was seized by Iranian forces on July 19.
Stena Bulk president and chief executive Erik Hanell has urged the Government to take action.
Mr Hanell said: ‘With little progress being made since the vessel was seized on 19th July, we urge governments involved to find a swift resolution so our 23 valued seafarers can return to their families and move on from this ordeal.
‘We reiterate that there is no evidence of a collision involving the Stena Impero, and at the time of the seizure the vessel was well within the inbound traffic separation scheme and out-with Iranian territorial waters.
‘All required navigational equipment, including transponders, was fully functioning, in compliance with maritime regulations.’
According to a statement from Stena Bulk, the company has ‘a growing concern for the welfare of the crew who are confined to the vessel’.
Montrose will return to port later this week and will be replaced by HMS Duncan, a destroyer which arrived in the region on Sunday.
‘It’s a busy, congested maritime space for which Montrose has spent the last 28 days basically on patrol,’ Cdr King said this morning.
Describing the Straits, he said the British mariners were working in 97F conditions with a ‘whole myriad’ of merchant ships, including tankers, bulk carriers and smaller vessels.
‘We’ve been here ever since this crisis with Iran started to unfold and we’ve now done 23 transits through the straits, almost one every day,’ he said.
‘We’ve been effectively accompanying British-registered shipping through the Strait as we continue to protect the freedom of navigational rights that are so crucial to an island nation.
‘I’ve had 85 interactions with Iranian forces over the last 27 days so that gives you some idea of the intensity.
‘The Iranians seem to be keen to test our resolve, test our reactions most of the time and as you’d expect we’re on guard to do that, we’re ready to react, I’ve got 215 in my team who are highly trained and are relishing the professional opportunities.’
Asked what the Iranians were doing, he said: ‘They’ll claim that perhaps our presence is illegitimate even though we’re completely lawfully in international waters, they may also run boats in at speed towards us to test what warning levels we get to.
‘In the naval business this is what we would expect and this is what we’ve seen before.
‘The intensity is perhaps more than we’ve seen in recent times and obviously for the merchant shipping, they’re not used to seeing that, and as such our presence is key to reassuring them that actually we are able to effectively just offset any kind of aggression that the Iranians may show.
Stuck in a political crisis: An aerial photo of the idling British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero which was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on July 17
Armed guard: Two members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inspect the captured British tanker in a picture taken earlier this month
Asked whether every British merchant could be escorted, he said: ‘Of course it’s a challenge when you’ve got an area twice the size of Wales with one ship.
‘Thankfully we’ve been joined by HMS Duncan so we’re in a strong position to provide those accompaniments that are needed to offer that permanent reassurance.’
Despite Montrose’s presence in the Gulf, Iran intercepted the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero on July 19 as it made its way through the Straits and has detained the ship at an Iranian port.
Britain on Monday ruled out swapping the tankers, and has proposed the formation of a European-led naval escort mission for global shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
It comes as US President Donald Trump exerts a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of economic sanctions and stepped-up military presence aimed at forcing Tehran to renegotiate a landmark 2015 nuclear pact he pulled out of last year.
Captured: Iran paraded the crew of the Stena Impero oil tanker, which sails under a British flag, after its Revolutionary Guards captured the vessel
Footage broadcast on Iranian state TV shows the seized British-registered oil tanker having an Iranian flag hoisted above it
Flashpoint: The Stena Impero, the UK-flagged tanker at the centre of the latest Middle East tensions, is seen at a heavily guarded Iranian port
UK authorities intercepted the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar on July 4, saying it carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria.
Britain says the tanker was seized because it was headed for Syria in violation of EU sanctions – not because it was Iranian.
However, Iran reacted furiously and made repeated threats against British shipping – which it finally carried out when it seized the Stena Impero two weeks later.
Tehran initially claimed the Stena had been seized for flouting maritime laws after supposedly hitting a fishing boat and switching off its distress signal.
But Iran has itself contradicted that claim, making clear on Saturday that the capture of the Impero was retaliation for the Gibraltar operation.
‘The rule of reciprocal action is well-known in international law,’ said Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council, earlier this month.