British foreign secretary Dominic Raab. Picture: REUTERS/ERIC VIDAL
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab. Picture: REUTERS/ERIC VIDAL

London — The UK said on Monday it is was  “spearheading” an international mission to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, which will see the Royal Navy work with the US to ensure safe passage amid the ongoing confrontation with Iran.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has spoken to allies around the world to encourage them to join the mission to safeguard a key chokepoint for oil, the UK said Monday in a statement issued by its embassy in Washington. The move may give European allies, who had previously all but ruled out joining a US-led effort in the region, cover to participate.

“It is vital to secure the freedom for all international shipping to navigate the Strait of Hormuz without delay, given the increased threat,” Raab said in the statement. “This deployment will reinforce security and provide reassurance for shipping. Our aim is to build the broadest international support to uphold freedom of navigation in the region, as protected under international law.”

Cooperating with the US marks a shift in strategy under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The UK had previously called for a European-led initiative to protect shipping as it sought to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The Pentagon welcomed the UK’s move. “This is an international challenge and we look forward to the opportunity to work together with the Royal Navy and with additional partners and allies who share the common goal of ensuring the free flow of commerce,” Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a defence department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

European leaders blame President Donald Trump for inflaming tensions when he pulled the US out of the 2015 accord, which was aimed at cutting off Iran’s route to attaining nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. The US has since imposed more trade restrictions and sought to cut off Iran’s oil sales.

Preserving the deal

“Our approach to Iran hasn’t changed,” Raab said. “We remain committed to working with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate the situation and maintain the nuclear deal.”

That is likely to be more difficult now.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said Monday his country would act more vigorously to protect its interests in the region, and singled out the British government for criticism after UK forces seized an Iranian tanker on July 4 near Gibraltar, accusing it of violating international sanctions on Syria.

Iran retaliated by grabbing a British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz two weeks later and continues to hold it. It has also detained two smaller vessels it accuses of smuggling fuel.

The UK showed it was “complicit in US economic terrorism”, Zarif said.

The UK has two warships in the region, the HMS Montrose and HMS Duncan, which have successfully accompanied 47 ships, according to the statement.

In addition to the vessel seizures, Iran has also been accused of a series of attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes. Tehran denies the accusations.

With assistance from Tony Capaccio.