Another potential escalation between Iran and the western powers appeared to have been averted amid claims by US and UK officials on Thursday that three ships belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards sought “attempted to impede” a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iranian officials bluntly denied any such incident took place.

Wednesday’s alleged incident in the Gulf follows the 4 July seizure of an Iranian-linked oil-tanker Grace I by UK forces off the coast Gibraltar on suspicions it was carrying crude oil to an embargoed refinery in Syria. It happened on the same day the US demanded that world powers punish Iran for upping its enrichment of uranium.

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Tehran has warned for days that Britain would face “repercussions” – but, adding to the confusion, Iranian officials on Thursday denied the Panamanian-flagged ship was owned by Iran, with a military commander claiming it was only leased by Tehran. 

“We had rented this ship and it was carrying the cargo,” Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard, was quoted as saying by the Tasnim news agency. “Their action was very silly and they will certainly regret it.”

The incident threatens to further increase strains between western powers and Iran as they seek to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal after the US pulled out and announced harsh sanctions on Tehran.

The UK claimed Revolutionary Guard vessels approached the BP-owned British Heritage in the Gulf on Wednesday, asking it to stop in nearby Iranian waters, but withdrew after a Royal Navy warship issued them “verbal warnings” over radio.

US defence personnel said the navy frigate HMS Montrose, which was accompanying the tanker, “pointed its guns at the [Iranian] boats”, according to US media reports. The Ministry of Defence had no immediate comment when contacted by The Independent.

“It was harassment and an attempt to interfere with the passage,” one of the US officials reportedly said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The British government statement said: “We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.” 

But Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the Revolutionary Guard’s navy both denied any incident had taken place involving the British Heritage. “During the last 24 hours, there were no encounters with foreign vessels, including the British Tides,” said a statement by Revolutionary Guard naval forces cited by the Fars news agency.

No audio or video recordings of the incident have yet emerged.

It remains unclear whether the conflicting accounts were the result of a misinterpretation or misleading statements. Iranian boats in the Gulf have for years harassed US and other ships moving out of the waterway, drawing too close in what American officials often dismissed as annoyances.  

Hours before the incident Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, had referred to the UK tanker, noting that the UK had “to bring your frigates [to escort it] because you are scared.”

“Why do you commit such acts?” he said. “You should instead allow navigation to be safe.”

On Thursday, Mr Zarif rejected the claims that Iran had sought to seize the ship. “They make such claims to create tension, yet these claims are worthless and they have made many such claims,” he told reporters, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. “They say such things to cover up their own weaknesses.”

Russia, which has increasingly asserted itself in the Middle East as a broker and spoiler, called for restraint and “unconditional” freedom of navigation following the incident, but refused to endorse either the UK or Iranian version of events. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency the Kremlin had “registered the information that such an incident has allegedly taken place, and we have also registered the statement by Iranian representatives that this information does not correspond to reality”.

Asked whether the UK planned to step up its military presence in the region to enhance protection to shipping, a Downing Street spokesman said: “We have a long-standing maritime presence in the Gulf. We are continuously monitoring the security situation there and are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law.” 

Pressed on whether the UK saw Wednesday’s incident as a response to the seizure of Grace I, the spokesman said: “I’m not going to speculate on Iran’s motivations. Our position from last week stands. We’ve been very clear that Grace I is a Syria sanctions issue, rather than an Iran issue.”

Media reports suggested that British-flagged ships in the Strait of Hormuz had now been put on “heightened security” following new guidance from the Department for Transport.

A spokesperson from the department told The Independent that they were unable to comment on the reports.

The alleged confrontation in the Gulf took place as the US reportedly demanded at a closed-door meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna that the world take action against Iran for breaching its commitments under the nuclear deal, even as Washington itself had withdrawn from the agreement at the behest of Beltway Iran hawks, Israel, and Gulf Arab monarchs. 

According to statements by Iranian and Russian officials, US officials failed to gain traction at the IAEA as much of the world remains committed to upholding it despite relatively minor breaches by Iran that Tehran describes as responses for the failure to remove impediments to trade with the Islamic Republic. 

Tehran has offered to return to the agreement, but the US president has rejected the deal, arguing it was too generous to Iran and did not address its involvement in regional conflicts.

In May, the US dispatched an aircraft carrier, bombers and fighter jets to the Gulf in response to alleged Iranian threats.

The US has also accused Iran of being involved in the bombing of oil tankers in the Gulf and said it shot down an American drone in international airspace.

Iran has denied any involvement in the attacks on the tankers and said the drone had veered into its airspace.

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