Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Britain warns tanker operators of rising threats to navigation in the Arabian Gulf

Tension with Iran trigger cat and mouse game on the oil lanes of the Gulf

UAE will join efforts by other nations to protect shipping corridors. The British have provided HMS Montrose to the cause. AFP
UAE will join efforts by other nations to protect shipping corridors. The British have provided HMS Montrose to the cause. AFP

Recent traffic figures for the Arabian Gulf give a fair indication that Iran deliberately targeted a British oil tanker in the waterway.

Of more than 850 flagged tankers in the area, only 10 are under the ensigns of the UK or Isle of Man.

After days of speculation, the frigate HMS Montrose moved alongside two British tankers on Wednesday to provide an escort for the trip through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Sea of Oman.

The first, the Pacific Voyager, passed the narrow channel of international waters without incident.

But the British Heritage was challenged, leading to a warning from the warship to three boats from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The skirmish was hardly confined to the sea. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President, was one of several officials who threatened to take action against the British in retaliation for the seizure of a fully laden Iranian supertanker, the Grace 1, off Gibraltar last week.

Mr Rouhani said that the Royal Navy had been sent to accompany ships showed London was “scared” and “hopeless”.

Britain's Department of Transport has issued new guidance to British shipping about the change to threat levels at sea.

Analysts believe military escorts for tankers are now a fact of navigation in the area.

“By sending speedboats to intercept a British tanker, despite the fact that it is escorted by a British frigate, Tehran means to show that such defensive measures are quite necessary and that British tankers should from now on be escorted or face potentially successful attacks,” said Michael Horowitz, head of intelligence at Le Beck.

“While the British deployment should be able to mitigate that threat, you have to wonder about the sustainability of these measures and the delays they may trigger.

"Creating the impression that the current situation and current American policy towards Iran are both unsustainable is Tehran's main goal.”

The potential for escalation from the accumulation of weaponry and firepower in one strategic chokepoint is high and rising.

Iran has sought to use its coastline and the sea lanes that carry global oil supplies as a strategic asset.

While the country has been starved of oil revenues and cannot match the defence budgets of western nations, it has for decades recognised the opportunities from disruption of the straits.

Data compiled by Lloyds List Intelligence shows 16.8 million barrels of the 52.9 million barrels a day of crude that moved in 2018 went through Hormuz.

The next busiest sea lanes were in the Straits of Malacca and Bab Al Mandeb, on the west coast of Yemen, ranked third.

It is not the first time that western nations have had to react to Iranian aggression in the area.

Operation Earnest Will saw the US mobilise to protect friendly shipping in 1987. And in Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, the US sank more than 50 per cent of Iran's surface fleet.

The tempo of Iranian disruption has been rising, culminating in sabotage attacks on vessels in recent weeks.

A US Navy drone was shot down by an Iranian missile in June and Washington called off a retaliation plan as a result of a presidential intervention at the last minute.

There are fears of a hostage crisis if Iran were to seize US or British ships.

In a much more benign period in 2016, the Iranians held 10 US Navy personnel and seized their vessel after boarding it around Farsi Island in the Gulf.

An incident in 2007 saw the IRGC seize 15 British sailors and marines from patrol boats in Iraq’s Shatt Al Arab, holding them for two weeks at safe houses while diplomats haggled.

At stake was not only the fate of captured military personnel but the traded release of nine Iranians held by the US at its consulates in Iraq for supplying arms to militias.

Updated: July 12, 2019 03:17 AM

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