Britain seeks Europe-led naval mission in Gulf
July 22 2019 11:27 PM
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard member walks onboard of Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard member walks onboard of Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, in Bandar Abbas port, Iran

Reuters Dubai/London

*Iran's FM warns West against starting a conflict, saying Tehran was not seeking confrontation
*British-flagged ship seized for endangering safety and security of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz: Zarif

Britain called on Monday for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, days after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in what London described as an act of "state piracy".

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined the plans to parliament after a meeting of COBR, the government's emergency committee, which discussed London's response to Friday's capture of the Stena Impero tanker by Iranian commandos at sea.

"Under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship's passage - let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy," Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament.

"We will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region," Hunt said.

The British announcement signals a potential shift from Washington's major European allies who so far have been cool to US requests that they beef up their military presence in the Gulf, for fear of feeding the confrontation there.

Nevertheless, Hunt made a point of saying that the proposal would not involve contributing European military power to back Washington's hardline stance against Iran.

Washington's major European allies Britain, France and Germany all opposed a decision last year by US President Donald Trump to abandon an international agreement that promised Iran access to trade in return for accepting curbs on its nuclear programme.

The new mission "will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement," Hunt said.

The Europeans have tried to stay neutral as tension has risen between Tehran and Washington. But Britain was plunged directly into the crisis on July 4 when it seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar accused of violating sanctions on Syria.

Iran seized the Stena Impero on Friday using the same tactics - commandos rappelling to the deck from helicopters - that British Royal Marines had used aboard Iran's own ship.

In a separate development that could generate more tension, Iran said on Monday it had arrested 17 spies working for the CIA and sentenced some of them to death, an announcement Trump dismissed as "totally false".

A report from Managua adds: Iran's foreign minister warned the West on Monday against "starting a conflict," saying it was not seeking confrontation after its military seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz last week.

Speaking in Nicaragua, Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif said Iran had taken measures against the ship to implement international law, not in retaliation for the British capture of an Iranian tanker two weeks earlier in Gibraltar.

"Starting a conflict is easy, ending it would be impossible," Zarif told reporters after meeting his Nicaraguan counterpart.

"It's important for everybody to realize, it's important for Boris Johnson to understand, that Iran does not seek confrontation," he said, referring to the front-runner to become Britain's new prime minister.

"Iran wants to have normal relations based on mutual respect," he added.

Zarif said Iran acted when it observed that the UK ship did not follow regulations.

"The UK ship had turned down its signal for more time than it was allowed to (and) was passing through the wrong channel, endangering the safety and security of shipping and navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, for which we are responsible," Zarif said.

In contrast, he described the seizure of the Iranian ship as "piracy" and "violation of international law" by British and Gibraltar authorities.

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