Iran today paraded the crew of a British-flagged tanker that it captured in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday.
Tehran released video of some of the 23-strong crew of the Stena Impero sitting around a table speaking with one of their captors, alongside fresh images showing Revolutionary Guardsmen on board the Swedish-owned vessel.
The video shows seven of the crew wearing red jumpsuits and sitting around a table, as one Iranian guard can be heard thanking them for their cooperation. The cameraman can also be heard telling them not to look at him.
The photos and videos are Iran’s latest taunt to Britain, after it also released video of its flag being raised over the vessel and the Islamic call to prayer being played through its speakers.
Pictures released by the semi-official Fars news agency earlier in the day show some of the crew – which includes 18 Indians, three Russians a Latvian and a Filipino – huddled cross-legged on the floor.
Standing over them in a Revolutionary Guardsman, while items of bedding and towels are scattered around the room. Their shoes have been taken off and piled in a corner.
Iran seized the vessel as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, weeks after Britain detained an Iranian vessel off the coast of Gibraltar. Iran says the US ordered the operation amid a standoff between the two countries, but the UK claims the tanker was violating EU sanctions.
Iran has today paraded the crew of the Stena Impero oil tanker, which sails under a British flag, after its Revolutionary Guards captured the vessel on Friday. Footage released on state TV channels showed part of the crew sitting around a table
Other images showed the crew – which included 18 Indians, three Russian, and Latvian and a Filipino – laughing and smiling. Tehran has previously said that the crew are well and are being looked after
Chefs are also shown preparing food in the tanker’s kitchen in an attempt by Iranian authorities to prove that the crew are not being badly treated
Iran’s state-affiliated Fars news agency released the first image inside the British-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker on Monday, showing part of the 23-strong crew sitting cross-legged on the floor under the watch of a Revolutionary Guardsman while their shoes sit piled up nearby
In a second image, an armed guardsman is seen patrolling along the deck of the Imepero in the latest taunt to Britain. Iran is trying to secure the release of its tanker – the Grace 1 – which was seized by Royal Marines near Gibraltar earlier this month
A third image shows the Imepero being watched over by an armed Iranian vessel at the port of Bandar Abbas, where it is being held after it was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday last week
British Prime Minister Theresa May chaired a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee on Monday to discuss the crisis, even though her leadership is expected to pass to Boris Johnson in the coming days, who now faces a baptism of fire to diffuse the situation.
The government was also criticised for cutting the size of the navy so that it is not capable of meeting the threat from Iran, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the responsibility for protecting British ships ‘falls to the United Kingdom.’
More video released by Iran The video also shows the crew laughing while standing around a coffee machine, and the ship’s cooks preparing food in an apparent attempt to show they are being treated well.
Two others photos also released by Fars show an armed guardsman on the deck of the tanker, and the tanker being watched over by armed boats at the port of Bandar Abbas, where it is being held.
In other developments on Monday:
- Russia waded in to take the side of its ally – Iran – accusing Britain of ‘piracy’ for seizing the Grace 1 tanker
- Theresa May chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee. Her spokesman said seizing the tanker was illegal and that officials had written to the UN to complain
- Boris Johnson was urged to break his silence on the crisis, as he prepares to become Tory leader
- Tony Blair said the future of Iran’s nuclear deal could be a way to exert diplomatic pressure on Tehran
- Relatives of one of the crewmen were pictured weeping as they watched news of the tanker’s capture on TV
- Former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West led criticism that the Royal Navy is no longer fit for purpose and cannot protect British interests
- Iran said it had captured 17 CIA spies and planned to put some of them to death
As Mrs May chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee, her spokesman said: ‘We are clear that the seizure of the British-flagged, Swedish owned Stena Impero on Friday was illegal under international law.
‘The ship was seized under false and illegal pretences and the Iranians should release it and its crew immediately.
‘The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to make this demand.
‘We do not seek confrontation with Iran but it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to seize a ship going about legitimate business through internationally recognised shipping lanes.’
While Mrs May is handling the crisis for now, Boris Johnson is expected to take over as Prime Minister on Wednesday, and diffusing the crisis will be his first challenge.
He was urged to speak out about the crisis Monday, even as critics attacked his record on negotiating with Iran – after he managed to have the jail term of Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe extended while he was Foreign Secretary.
In a sign that Mr Johnson could opt to make his Tory leadership rival Mr Hunt the fall guy for the situation, Jacob Rees-Mogg today said it would be ‘vanity’ if the current Foreign Secretary refused to accept a demotion.
Meanwhile Moscow’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov insisted Iran was merely ‘taking care of ecology’ in the Gulf and said ‘Iran’s arguments are much more right than those of Gibraltar and London who are indulging in piracy’.
The tanker row – the latest in a series of threats to Middle East shipping – has sent tensions spiralling further amid furious exchanges of rhetoric over the crumbling nuclear deal with Iran.
Maritime industry publication Lloyd’s List said there are currently no U.K.-flagged ships heading to the Persian Gulf and eight U.K.-flagged vessels anchored there after a government advisory to such vessels to avoid the Strait of Hormuz.
Restoring the free flow of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz is of critical importance to the world’s energy supplies because one-fifth of all global crude exports pass through the narrow waterway between Iran and Oman.
Yesterday the Iranian flag was hoisted over the Stena with Iranian armed forces patrolling the decks in the heavily-guarded port of Bandar Abbas.
The family of one of the crewmen – Deena and husband Pappachan – were pictured weeping at their home in Kochi, India, while watching news about the tanker on TV
Footage broadcast on Iranian state TV shows the seized British-registered oil tanker having an Iranian flag hoisted above it. The Royal Navy’s nickname for the strait is ‘Chokepoint Charlie’. It links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, a tight hairpin bend with Iran to the north and the headland of Oman and the United Arab Emirates to the south
Keeping watch: An Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boat sails in front of the Stena Impero, the UK-flagged vessel which was seized by Iranian authorities on Friday
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
On deck: The Stena is seen with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat beside it after it was captured on Friday
Video footage released by Iran showed the tanker being surrounded by speedboats before troops in balaclavas descend a rope from a helicopter onto the vessel.
In a radio exchange, an Iranian officer can be heard telling the tanker to change course.
‘You are ordered: change your course… immediately. If you obey, you will be safe,’ he said.
The British frigate HMS Montrose intervenes to inform the Stena its ‘passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered’ under international law.
The Iranians then tell the British warship: ‘No challenge is intended… I want to inspect the ship for security reason.’
The Montrose diverted to the Stena’s position but was around an hour away by the time it entered Iranian waters.
Iran impounded the Stena on allegations it failed to respond to distress calls and turned off its transponder after hitting a fishing boat.
A top British representative to the UN rejected Iran’s version of events, accusing Tehran of ‘illegal interference’ and saying there was no evidence of a collision.
Iran ‘arrests 17 CIA spies, several face execution’
Seventeen alleged CIA spies have been arrested in Iran and some of them will face the death penalty, Tehran claimed today.
Iranian intelligence chiefs say they have broken up an American spy ring which had planted U.S. agents in nuclear, military and cyber facilities and allegedly tried to recruit spies in the UAE.
The suspects were all Iranians, some of them recruited by a ‘visa trap’ in which the CIA would target Iranians as they applied to travel to America, Iran claims.
Accusation: An Iranian official tells a documentary how authorities in Tehran had struck a blow against American intelligence
In a statement read on state television, the Ministry of Intelligence said 17 spies were arrested during the Iranian calendar year that ended in March 2019.
‘Those who deliberately betrayed the country were handed to the judiciary… some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment,’ an intelligence spokesman told Iranian media.
‘The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centres in the economic, nuclear, infrastructural, military and cyber areas… where they collected classified information.’
Iranian officials said the suspects had been gathering classified information using ‘advanced equipment’.
Meanwhile an Iranian television documentary aired on Monday purported to show a CIA officer recruiting an Iranian man in the United Arab Emirates.
The Press TV documentary claimed that Iran had ‘dealt a blow to the U.S. foreign intelligence service’, though it was unclear if it was describing the same arrests.
‘Because there are so many intelligence officers in Dubai. It is very dangerous… Iranian intelligence,’ a woman was shown telling an Iranian in the documentary.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, British charge d’affaires Jonathan Allen wrote that the vessel had been in Omani waters with its transponder switched on when it was approached.
Tehran on Monday described the operation as a ‘legal measure’.
“Seizing the British tanker was a legal measure by Iran. Iran confronted the ship (to ensure) the region’s security,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference in Tehran.
‘To all the countries that are calling on Iran to release the tanker, we ask them to tell Britain the same thing.
‘Comparing the two seizures is an unfair reading’ of the situation, said the Iranian government spokesman.
‘When you illegally seize the ship in Gibraltar, we too are not bound to tolerate any more.’
T. V. Pappachan, the father of 26-year-old crew member Dijo Pappachan, said he is waiting anxiously for his son to be returned and called on Britain to guarantee his safety.
‘I am not speaking only for my son. All the 23 crew members set sail to foreign countries for work. They are onboard to make a living. It is the government’s responsibility to make sure they come back safe,’ he told the Kahleej Times.
I have complete trust in the government of India and our diplomatic strength. I understand that the issue is between countries and individuals cannot do much. We are all praying for the entire crew’s safe return.’
Theresa May chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee Cobra on Monday amid concern over how Iran was able to capture the ship.
A second oil tanker, the Liberian-flagged Mesdar, which is managed by Norbulk Shipping UK, veered off course towards the Iranian coast after it was boarded by armed guards at around 5.30pm on Friday.
The Mesdar’s Glasgow-based operator said communication had since been re-established with the ship and the crew were unharmed.
Britain has warned its ships to avoid the Straits of Hormuz, a chokepoint for about a third of the world’s sea-borne oil.
UK authorities intercepted the Grace 1 on July 4, saying it was violating EU sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria.
A detachment of Royal Marines from 42 Commando boarded the vessel off Gibraltar in a joint operation with the Royal Gibraltar Police.
Gibraltar’s government said tests showed the supertanker was fully loaded with crude oil.
But Iran has insisted that the tanker was not headed for Syria.
Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood attempted to dispel criticism that the UK had ‘taken its eye off the ball’ by allowing the tanker to be captured.
He said the UK had vessels going through 100 nautical miles of waterway every day in the region, adding: ‘It is impossible simply to escort each individual vessel.’
He also called for more money to be invested in the Royal Navy if Britain wants to continue to play a role on the international stage.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory party leader, added his voice to the critics – saying that Britain was offered help in guarding the vessels by the United States and refused it.
The Stena Impero was surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces at 4pm and ordered to head north on Friday. A second British-managed vessel, Mesdar, abruptly changed course towards Iran
Russian deputy foreign ministery Sergei Ryabkov (pictured) took Iran’s side over the tanker
Footage showed troops wearing ski masks and carrying machine guns (pictured) rappelling to its deck from a helicopter before capturing the British-registered oil tanker on Friday night
Royal Navy ‘disgracefully short of ships’
Former heads of the navy and politicians are joining a chorus of criticism of the state of the Royal Navy – warning Britain’s fleet no longer has the power to protect British interests, following the seizure by Iran of a British-flagged oil tanker.
Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West said the Navy is ‘disgracefully short of ships’ while retired commander of UK maritime forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton said the Navy’s decline since 2005 ‘has had an impact on our ability to protect our interests around the globe’.
On Friday the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose arrived an hour too late to prevent Iranian Revolutionary guard commandos from seizing the British-flagged Stena Impero oil tanker.
The Royal Navy fleet is a fraction of its size three decades ago and many ships are currently out of commission undergoing maintenance or repair
They diverted the tanker and its mainly Indian crew to Iran, despite it sailing in Omani waters, in retaliation for the capture by British forces of an Iranian vessel earlier this month.
Politicians and military experts have asked why it was not accompanied by a Royal Navy convoy after the Iranian Grace One tanker, allegedly taking Iranian oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, was captured by UK forces off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4.
Conservative MP Huw Merriman said yesterday: ‘I take the view that we have dropped the ball here … we did not put in place a chain where we asked all of our vessels to leave at a certain time under convoy.
‘So it was hardly a surprise when one of ours got taken.’
What does it mean for a ship to sail under a country’s flag?
While the Stena Impero is a British-flagged vessel, it is owned by Swedish shipping firm Stena AB – which is headquartered in Glasgow.
Being ‘British-flagged’ means the vessel is registered in the UK and is covered by the maritime laws of that country.
A vessel does not have to have any physical connection to the country in which it is registered and merely has to have an application accepted by that country’s shipping authorities.
A ship can only fly one flag at a time, but can change flags at any point.
As a result, some owners seek a so-called ‘flag of convenience’ which they believe will offer benefits.
Panama and the Marshall Islands are well-known for offering easy registrations and other benefits for those registering there, in the hopes of attracting business.
As a result, Panama has the largest ship register in the world, with the Marshall Islands second in the 2018 list.
Describing the grab by Tehran as a ‘major failure’ by the UK, he demanded to know why the offer of help was refused and said answers need to be offered ‘very quickly’.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Tory European Research Group and a prominent supporter of Boris Johnson, suggested that leadership rival Jeremy Hunt’s Foreign Office should accept some of the blame for the current crisis in the Gulf.
Downing Street has denied that the US offered support to escort every single British ship through the Strait, with Theresa May’s official spokesman saying that the area is simply too large to provide that kind of assistance.
Meanwhile senior intelligence sources claimed that terrorists supported by Iran could strike Britain if tensions deepen between the two countries.
Agencies believe that the Islamic Republic has funded sleeper cells across Europe, including in the UK.
They rank the country behind only Russia and China as in terms of the threat it poses to national security.
Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is linked to radicals that are operating the terror cells, a source told the Daily Telegraph.
Counter-terror officers broke apart a cell in 2015 when they found it stockpiling explosives in London.
Britain only has the Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose in the region plus four mine hunters, while the US as its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain – which includes one aircraft carrier, one missile cruiser, five destroyers, two amphibious vessels and two or three submarines
Senior Tory ministers including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left) International Trade Secretary Liam Fox (right) arrived at an emergency meeting of the Cobra committee on Monday chaired by Theresa May
Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter (left) and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matthew Hancock (right) both attended the Cobra meeting
The source told the paper: ‘Iran has Hezbollah operatives in position to carry out a terrorist attack in the event of a conflict. That is the nature of the domestic threat Iran poses to the UK.’
The current situation in the Gulf can be traced back to last year when President Trump’s administration tore up a nuclear deal signed under Obama.
Johnson’s first crisis?
Boris Johnson is expected to be crowned new Tory party leader Tuesday before taking the reins Wednesday, meaning he will take charge of managing the Iran crisis.
The former Foreign Secretary previously faced criticism after he managed to extend the jail term of Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran during his tenure, by suggesting that she was not on holiday, as had been previously claimed.
In just 48 hours, Mr Johnson could find himself negotiating the release of the 23-strong crew of the Stena Impero – which includes 18 Indians, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino.
He could also find himself doing so without the help of a Foreign Secretary, since his leadership rival is the man currently occupying the post -Jeremy Hunt.
While Mr Johnson has insisted the pair will ‘kiss and make up’ after the election is over, Mr Hunt may decide to follow one of his senior ministers – Sir Alan Duncan – and quit rather than serve under the new leader.
Mr Johnson has so far not spoken out over the crisis, despite mounting pressure to take a stand.
The deal guaranteed Iran economic benefits in return for curtailing its nuclear programme in a way which would not allow it to obtain nuclear weapons.
Trump reapplied stringent economic sanctions on Tehran, robbing the kingdom of much of its income, prompting the regime to walk back on its commitments.
As Iran tried to pressure European leaders to find a way to salvage the deal, tankers in the Gulf can under repeated attack, in explosions which Britain and America have blamed on Tehran.
A UAE investigation found four mysterious sabotage attacks on May 12 were linked to a ‘state actor’ but did not name Iran.
The attacks were carried out with limpet mines and were ‘part of a sophisticated and coordinated operation’, the report found.
The tanker attacks inflamed an already tense Middle East stand-off and prompted the U.S. to bolster its military presence in the region.
Matters worsened just four weeks later when another two ships were hit by explosions in the Gulf of Oman.
Forty-four sailors were forced to abandon their ships amid a huge fireball on the MT Front Altair and another blast on the Kokuka Courageous.
America again blamed Iran, releasing a video which purported to show Iranian revolutionary guard forces removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the ships.
The Ministry of Defence released this photo of HMS Montrose warding off Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats (circled) which harassed the UK-flagged tanker British Heritage on July 10
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard uses a large number of high-speed small vessels to harass shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. The regime launched these ‘ultra-fast’ boats in 2010
A tape has emerged of HMS Montrose (pictured in 2007) ordering the crew of the Stena Impero not to follow Iranian demands to change its course
Meanwhile tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions have also been heightening as Tehran moves ever further away from its 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran has said that it could restart deactivated centrifuges and ramp up enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent.
But Major General Hossein Salami, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, denied Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon.
Trump called off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic downed a U.S. drone.
Today former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said the future of Iran’s nuclear deal could be a way to exert diplomatic pressure on Tehran.
‘We have one substantial card in our hands, which is that the Iranians have been trying to get the British and the Europeans to keep to the Iran nuclear deal,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘Therefore actually their attempt to interfere with a British-flagged ship is obviously wrong, not just in principle, but it’s obviously a political gamble for them.’
He added that the UK would have to make special arrangements to escort shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
‘Chokepoint Charlie’: Patrolled by 2,000 Iranian speedboats, why the Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most chaotic and volatile shipping channels
By Phil Diacon, for the Daily Mail
To grasp fully the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, you need a clear picture of the chaotic and volatile scene in what is one of the world’s busiest shipping channels.
Up to 100 oil tankers pass through this narrow waterway every day, transporting close to 20 million barrels of oil – and that is only the activity we can most easily detect in these waters.
Hundreds of other boats and ships ply the same seas, which are not much wider than the English Channel between Dover and Boulogne, about 21 nautical miles.
Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at Bandar Abbas port today after being seized by Iran. Larger vessels in the strait are obliged to transmit their position, but those rules do not apply to the numerous smaller craft. It is, therefore, simply impossible for one British warship to have a full and detailed picture of all the activity in the Strait of Hormuz. You might as well ask a single police car to track every vehicle on a motorway
The Royal Navy’s nickname for the strait is ‘Chokepoint Charlie’. It links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, a tight hairpin bend with Iran to the north and the headland of Oman and the United Arab Emirates to the south.
Larger vessels are obliged to transmit their position, but those rules do not apply to the numerous smaller craft.
I spent my formative years in the RAF before founding a maritime intelligence service. The high seas, I have come to learn, are not like the skies, where all aircraft must keep to a flight plan and comply with air traffic control.
Instead, ships such as fishing vessels and pleasure boats do not have to signal their identity or their plans – which makes the Navy’s job of spotting Iran’s military patrol boats extremely difficult.
It is, therefore, simply impossible for one British warship to have a full and detailed picture of all the activity in the Strait of Hormuz. You might as well ask a single police car to track every vehicle on a motorway.
Iran knows this. It has been building up its military strength in the strait for decades, aimed at countering the West’s navies. The crisis in the Strait of Hormuz is extremely volatile. Tehran has become a hungry tiger, backed into a corner with few options for escape.
Already it has stockpiled mines and missiles. And most worryingly of all, the naval branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has about 2,000 fast attack craft (FAC) to be used in swarm formations. These speedboats can appear anywhere in the strait within minutes. Armed with heavy machine-guns and rocket launchers, they can carry radar-guided anti-ship missiles capable of sinking a 1,500-ton target.
Though their forces are no match for conventional Western navies, they have developed their strength in ‘asymmetric techniques’. It would be difficult for any warship – let alone a tanker – to defend itself against an assault by a swarm of FACs, especially if they were assisted by mini-submarines with torpedoes.
The Stena Impero was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz on Friday around 4pm when it was stopped by IRGC boats, diverted into Iranian waters, and is now being held at the port of Bandar Abbas. Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose was an hour away at the time, leading to claims the Royal Navy is no longer fit for purpose
Analysts also believe that Iran has developed unmanned, remote-controlled sea-going drones called Ya Mahdi boats. These can be loaded with explosives and launched on high-speed attacks that are difficult to detect on radar.
Clearly, it would be extremely foolish of the UK to underestimate Iran’s military capabilities – or the country’s pride.
The Royal Navy sailors trying to protect British shipping in the Gulf face another headache. Such is the chaotic situation on the ground that it is by no means easy to say what is and isn’t a British ship.
When Iranian commandos stormed the Stena Impero on Friday evening, referred to by some as a ‘British tanker’ none of the 23 crew members taken hostage was, in fact, British. The vessel was sailing under the British flag or ‘red ensign’, but that was really a diplomatic nicety. The ship is owned in Sweden, not the UK – and companies from any number of nations might lay claim to portions of its cargo.
The Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith asked yesterday why Britain had not accepted US offers of naval assistance, but the problem is not a lack of warships: it is knowing what to do with them.
So how should the next Prime Minister navigate this treacherous strait? Let us hope that mediation and cool responses prevail. Putting more warships into the area would increase the likelihood of conflict. I do not believe, therefore, that sending US aircraft carriers and our own nuclear submarines to the region is the answer.
Neither is greater use of convoys. Convoys can move only as fast as their slowest member, and many of the ships in the strait have no reason to join any convoy because they do not perceive any threat.
As long as this stand-off continues, the situation will remain tense. No one should be craving further military action. But after a weekend of dire warnings and threatening rhetoric, Britain has very few viable next steps.
- Phil Diacon is managing director of the maritime security experts Dryad Global