DRAMATIC audio has emerged of the radio exchanges between a Brit warship and Iranian armed forces ship moments before a UK-flagged oil tanker was seized on Friday.
In a move that edged the world closer to the brink of conflict, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched a gunboat and helicopter raid on the Stena Impero, which is registered in the UK, claiming it had turned off its tracker and ignored warnings.
Another vessel, the Mesdar, was also intercepted and forced towards Iranian territory in what appeared to be a co-ordinated strike.
In the recording, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard can be heard telling the Impero: “If you obey, you will be safe. Alter course to 360 degrees immediately, over.”
After that, HMS Montrose can be heard telling the crew: “This is British warship F236. I reiterate, that as you are conducting transit passage in a recognised international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered.”
The frigate then asks the Iranian vessel to confirm it is not “intending to violate international law” by attempting to board the tanker, in the recording obtained by security firm Dryad Global.
Penny Mordaunt, the defence secretary, said Montrose was an hour away from the Impero when it was seized.
ONE BRIT WARSHIP IN GULF
Montrose is the only warship Britain has in the Gulf to cover the 90-mile strait.
However the government has not arranged for civilian UK vessels to sail through the strait at fixed times, when the frigate could be on hand to protect them, as it did recently to guard against Somali pirates.
It can also be revealed that in April Britain withdrew two Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters, which were based close by in Oman and provided surveillance of the strait for hostile Iranian activity.
It said they were “no longer needed”.
A nuclear-powered submarine and Royal Marine Commandos could now be sent to bolster Navy defences in the Gulf.
The moves were discussed at emergency meetings of the Government’s Cobra security committee after Friday’s hijacks.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Iran it was choosing a “dangerous path” with its “totally unacceptable” actions in the Gulf.
He said he had spoken to Iran’s foreign minister to voice his “extreme disappointment” and said British shipping “must and will be protected”.
Last night Mr Hunt announced he had raised the maritime threat level to “level three” — or “critical”
The Tory leadership candidate is expected to use a Commons statement today to announce a package of diplomatic and economic measures.
The UK could also push for EU and UN sanctions to be reimposed on the regime after they were lifted in 2016 as part of a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme.
IRAN CRISIS: The key points so far
- Commandos from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard stormed UK-flagged oil tanker the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, taking the 23 crew captive.
- Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose steamed to its aid but arrived ten minutes after it was diverted into Iranian waters.
- A second tanker, the British-owned Mesdar, was also boarded by Iranian troops but later allowed to continue its journey to Saudi Arabia.
- Jeremy Hunt said there would be “serious consequences” and promised a “robust response” while Donald Trump said Iran is in “big trouble”.
- Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Britain of “economic terrorism” and repeated demands for Gibraltar to release an Iranian tanker seized while smuggling oil to Syria.
- The Royal Navy released footage of a failed attempt by Iran to seize BP tanker British Heritage, which was foiled by the Montrose last week.
It comes after the UK-registered Impero and its 23 crew members, none of whom are British, was seized during a gunboat and helicopter raid as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard said on state TV it was boarded for “violating international maritime rules”.
But Stena Bulk, which owns the ship, said it was in “full compliance with all navigation and international regulations”.
The firm said Iranian authorities had told them the crew were in “good health” and being held at Iranian port Bandar Abbas.
A second oil tanker, the Mesdar, veered off course towards the Iranian coast after it was boarded by armed guards in what appeared to be a co-ordinated attack.
The Mesdar’s Glasgow-based operator said communication had since been re-established with the ship and the crew were unharmed.
Defence Secretary Ms Mordaunt accused Iran of a “hostile and aggressive” act.
A former cabinet minister accused Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt of taking their “eyes off the ball” as they had been distracted by the Tory leadership content, the Sunday Times reported.
Admiral Lord West, a former first sea lord, said ministers had been attempting “gunboat diplomacy without the gunboats” and cuts had affected the navy’s ability to protect Britain.
Writing in the Guardian he said: “We should aim to have four escort ships in the region – what an indictment of the cuts to our surface fleet by successive governments.”
He warned that there are “very real risks of miscalculation or some foolhardy action leading to war” that would have “catastrophic consequences across the region and the globe.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Following the Cobra meetings, the British Astute-class nuclear-powered submarine, believed to be at sea already, is expected to head to the region within days.
It will listen to Iranian communications before passing information back to UK operational HQ at Northwood, in North West London.
Military chiefs chose it because of the danger posed by Iranian Yono-class “midget submarines”.
Retired naval Commander Tom Sharpe said: “The Yono midget submarine is a particular menace.
“Often lurking just below the surface, they are armed with a couple of heavyweight torpedoes. These will kill a frigate and possibly even a carrier. There are always a couple at sea and they are hard to track and even harder to defeat.”
The Royal Marines — some of whom are already in the region — will come from M Company, 42 Commando.
They would be authorised to use heavy-calibre machine guns, snipers and light anti-tank missiles to deter Iranian forces.
HMS Duncan, a Type 45 air-defence destroyer, was also heading towards the Gulf to assist HMS Montrose.
Support ship RFA Cardigan Bay is based in Bahrain as well as four mine countermeasures ships.
HMS Kent, another Type 23 anti-submarine frigate, is due to depart for the Gulf in five weeks.
MOST READ IN WORLD NEWS
Navy support ship RFA Wave Knight is also on her way to the region and left Gibraltar last night.
A military source said: “We have the ability to send more ships but they will take weeks so the Marines are a perfect fit in the short term.
“The men have been told they could be deployed on to commercial vessels. Tankers are also now likely to travel in convoy and shipping will be protected. But our main brief is not to escalate the situation — and provide a deterrent.”
The Government last night advised all UK ships to avoid the area.
A spokesman said: “We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s unacceptable actions which represent a clear challenge to international freedom of navigation.”
'Everyone must keep a cool head'
By Admiral Lord West, former Head of Royal Navy
THE Iranians threatened to seize British vessels in the Gulf so we shouldn’t be surprised by this incident — alarm bells were ringing.
It’s extraordinary that there weren’t stricter controls on UK ship movements in the region.
Ministry of Defence resources may be stretched but we should not have let tankers go into what is a dangerous zone without an escort.
We have fallen into Iran’s trap: They wanted a vessel to use as leverage against us and they have won that battle.
I now see Tehran escalating. Everyone must keep a cool head with de-escalation of tension at the forefront of their minds.
- GOT a story? RING The Sun on 0207 782 4104 or WHATSAPP on 07423720250 or EMAIL firstname.lastname@example.org