Jeremy Hunt is calling for more money to be spent on the Royal Navy amid rising Iranian aggression in the Gulf – after it was forced to intervene when a British oil tanker was ‘harassed’ by the revolutionary guard on Wednesday.
The Foreign Secretary has said more warships and carrier-based jets are needed to deal with tensions in the area, arguing that ‘boosting our hard power is the surest way to keep Britain respected overseas.’
It comes as the United States and its allies discuss plans to provide naval escorts for oil tankers through the Gulf, after three Iranian vessels tried to impede UK-flagged tanker British Heritage as it made its way through the Strait of Hormuz.
HMS Montrose, which was in international waters, placed itself between the gunboats and the tanker and gave the Iranians a verbal warning to back away before training its 30mm deck guns on them.
The Revolutionary Guard boats dispersed and the BP-owned tanker, British Heritage, carried on its way with the heavily armed warship following in escort.
The British government said HMS Montrose, a Type 23 frigate, positioned itself between the Iranian boats and the tanker and ordered them to back down
The HMS Montrose (pictured firing a missile on exercise in 2013) was said to have trained its guns on the Iranian vessels, before they backed off without a shot being fired
Iranian Revolutionary Guards boats (pictured front, file image) attempted to seize UK-flagged tanker British Heritage as it passed through the Stait of Hormuz Wednesday
In the wake of the incident, Jeremy Hunt (pictured today) said the Royal Navy has been ‘run down too much’ and that the recent incident was yet more evidence that more warships are needed
In the wake of the incident, Jeremy Hunt told The Daily Telegraph that he believes the Royal Navy has been ‘run down too much’ and the recent incident in the Persian Gulf was yet more evidence that more warships are needed.
He said: ‘We should be honest about the situation our armed forces are in. As many former defence chiefs have warned, we have been underspending for a while on ensuring our capabilities are up to 21st-century conflict.’
He added: ‘When you look at this week’s events it shows that in recent decades we have run down the Navy too much. Our current commitment is for 19 destroyers and frigates, supported by excellent offshore patrol vessels.’
Mr Hunt, who has made increasing defence spending a key pledge in his Tory leadership bid, also tweeted in the wake of the incident, saying the incident ‘shows exactly why we must invest more in defence’.
He said: ‘We have run down our Navy too much and this must now be urgently reversed. We need to show confidence in the world by putting our money where our mouth is!’ he said.
‘What is first duty of Government? To keep its citizens safe. Not possible if we continue to under-invest in our armed forces. Time to put things right and show the world we are a country that will always fight for our values.’
Wednesday’s incident comes just days after Royal Marines boarded an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar and detained it on suspicion it was breaking EU sanctions by taking two million barrels of crude oil to Syria.
Iran subsequently vowed it would get revenge by seizing a British vessel, with president Hassan Rouhani saying: ‘You [Britain] are the initiator of insecurity and you will realise the consequences later.’
Mohammad Jazayeri, a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts clerical body, said on Saturday that Britain ‘should be scared of Iran’s retaliatory measures’.
Wednesday’s incident, which came amid escalating tension between Iran and the West, prompted high-level talks in Whitehall as to whether Britain should send more warships to the region because HMS Montrose is unable to escort all UK vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow Gulf passage between Iran and Oman.
Tensions around the Persian Gulf have been ratcheting up since the US tore up a nuclear pact signed with Iran last year, but have reached fever-pitch since a series of attacks on oil tankers and the shoot-down of an American drone
The British Heritage (file image) loaded its cargo of crude oil at Basra, Iraq, as planned on July 4 – the day the Marines seized the Iranian tanker – and then diverted to shelter in Saudi waters until last night
Posting on Twitter yesterday afternoon, Mr Hunt who has made increasing defence spending a key pledge in his Tory leadership bid – said the incident yesterday ‘shows exactly why we must invest more in defence’
It emerged yesterday the British Government had raised the security warning for UK-flagged merchant vessels in Iranian waters to its highest level of ‘critical’.
Ships were urged to avoid travelling through specific shipping lanes after the ‘level 3’ update, which signals an ‘incident deemed to be imminent’.
Tensions between the two nations were heightened further yesterday when Gibraltar police said they had arrested the captain and chief officer of the Iranian supertanker that has been detained for a week. Police seized documents and electronic devices from the Grace 1 vessel, which is still in port in Gibraltar.
The British Heritage tanker, able to haul about one-million barrels of oil, was sailing toward Basra in Iraq when it made an abrupt U-turn on Saturday following the incident in Gibraltar.
It had been chartered by Royal Dutch Shell to transport crude oil from Basra to north-west Europe. It then sat off Saudi Arabia’s coast inside the Persian Gulf, fearing it could be seized by Iran in a tit-for-tat response.
On Wednesday, the empty vessel headed out of the region, with the Royal Navy shadowing from afar. It was near the island of Abu Musa that it was approached by Revolutionary Guard gunboats which tried to ‘impede’ the vessel. The gunboats ‘harassed’ the tanker and tried to make it change course, Navy sources told the Mail.
Royal Marines fast-roped on to the deck of Iranian tanker Grace 1 from a Wildcat helicopter (pictured left) as it sailed near Gibraltar, while others approached by boat
Operation: British Royal Marines taking part in the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker in the early hours of last Thursday morning
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned earlier on Wednesday that Britain would ‘face consequences’ for detaining an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar
Although Abu Musa was in disputed territorial waters – which ships are allowed to pass through – HMS Montrose remained in international waters throughout.
The warship also deployed its Westland Wildcat helicopter to circle the Iranian boats in a bid to scare them off.
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt urged the Iranians to back away from further confrontations. She said: ‘The UK Government is concerned by this action and we urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation.’
But Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the allegation that Iran sought to block the ship as ‘worthless’. He said ‘the claims that have been made are for creating tension’.
Up to three British-flagged ships travel through the Strait of Hormuz in any given day, with up to 30 in the seas in the Persian Gulf. But there is currently only one UK escort ship – HMS Montrose – in the region, meaning it is impossible for it to protect every vessel.
The Gulf is an extremely crowded area and there are traffic separation schemes for ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
Some of those shipping lanes run through Iranian waters but there are options for ships to minimise their time there.
Under the warnings sent out by the UK Government yesterday, merchant vessels are being urged to avoid the waters where possible and be ‘vigilant’.
Tensions in the region have risen since US President Donald Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama in 2015. This eased sanctions against the Islamic regime on condition it restricted its nuclear ambitions to peaceful energy generation. But the reimposition of US sanctions has led to Tehran being accused of sabotaging foreign oil tankers in its waters in an attempt at economic retaliation.
The UK and other European nations, as well as Russia and China, remain signatories to the deal, but Iran’s aggressive actions mean it has all but collapsed.
The US and Iran came close to direct military conflict last month when Iran shot down a US drone and Trump ordered retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off minutes before impact.