A British soldier looks on during an operation involving the oil supertanker Grace 1, that's on suspicion of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria. Picture: UK Ministry of Defence/Handout via REUTERS
A British soldier looks on during an operation involving the oil supertanker Grace 1, that's on suspicion of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria. Picture: UK Ministry of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

London — Three Iranian vessels tried to block a BP-operated tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz but backed off when confronted by a Royal Navy warship, the UK government says.

Britain urged Iran to “de-escalate the situation in the region” after the British Heritage, a Suezmax oil tanker operated by BP under an Isle of Man flag, was approached.

“HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away,” a British government spokesperson said.

The incident followed President Donald Trump’s warning he would soon “substantially” increase US sanctions on Iran as part of a drive to curb Iran’s nuclear programme and force Tehran to change its regional behaviour.

The US blames Iran for a series of attacks on shipping in the world’s most important oil artery since mid-May, accusations Tehran rejects but which have raised fears the long-time foes could slip into direct military conflict.

The growing confrontation between Iran and the West took another twist last week when British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, off Gibraltar on suspicion that it was breaking EU sanctions by taking oil to Syria.

A senior Iranian military commander on Thursday said Britain and the US would regret detaining the vessel, just days after the armed forces chief of staff said the action would not go unanswered.

Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, dismissed as “worthless” on Thursday UK allegations Iran had sought to block the British Heritage, the semi-official Fars news agency said.

Key shipping lane

Tensions in the Gulf have been rising over recent weeks as Iran began to move away from the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord it struck with world powers.

The US withdrew from the pact in 2018 and extended sanctions against Iran, effectively driving Iran from mainstream oil markets and forcing it to find unconventional ways to sell crude, its main revenue earner.

That has deprived Tehran of the economic benefits Iran was to accrue in return for curbing its nuclear programme, and the Islamic Republic says it will only return to full compliance once sanctions are lifted and Washington rejoins the pact.

BP CEO Bob Dudley, asked about the situation in the Gulf at an event at London’s Chatham House on Wednesday evening, said: “We’ve got to be super careful about our ships”.

A BP spokesperson said the oil major was not commenting on the latest event but added: “We thank the Royal Navy for their support”.

An escalation in the Strait of Hormuz — linking Middle East oil producers with markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond — could drive up crude prices.

Maritime security sources said Britain will protect shipping lanes but there was no formal policy yet of escorting all UK ships through the area. The Montrose was in the area to ensure the safe passage of UK flagged ships when needed, they said.

Refinitiv data shows four other UK registered tankers are now in the Gulf.

Bob Sanguinetti, CEO with the UK Chamber of Shipping trade association, said the situation was tense and called for a

“UK shipowners are in regular contact with the relevant authorities and agencies regarding the security situation in the region, and we are confident that the Royal Navy will provide the necessary support to their vessels,” he said.

Oman, which hosts a joint British military base and shares the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, did not immediately comment. It has mediated between Tehran and the West and also allows the British and US navies to use its ports on the Arabian Sea.

Proxy battles 

Heightened tension between Iran and the US have fanned fears of increasing conflict in countries where Iran and its US-backed Gulf Arab rivals have been locked in proxy battles for predominance in the Middle East.

In June, Iran shot down a US drone near the Strait of Hormuz and Trump aborted a retaliatory military strike, saying it could have killed 150 people. He has signalled he is open to talks with Tehran without preconditions, an offer rejected by Iran’s clerical leadership.

The US is hoping to enlist allies in a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, Marine Gen Joseph Dunford, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff, said on Tuesday.

Britain, France and Germany have sought to avoid being dragged into US sanctions but say Iran must return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal they were instrumental in brokering.

They have so far avoided triggering a dispute resolution process contained in the deal but it could take new steps in the next two months, including restarting dismantled centrifuges and purifying uranium to a sharply higher threshold, unless it is allowed to resume normal oil sales.

Francois Lecointre, the French armed forces chief, described the friction between the US and France as a “clash of wills”.

“I think it is under control now ... I don’t think it can spiral out of control but there can be escalation,” he told CNews television.