Serious questions have been raised over the Government’s failure to protect the UK-flagged oil tanker seized by Iranian forces in the Gulf last week as ministers consider freezing assets in response to the diplomatic incident.
The former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said ministers should have realised the Stena Imperto was vulnerable and ordered proper protection, accusing them of a “major failure”.
Simmering tensions between Britain and Iran over the incident are likely to escalate further today, with the announcement of fresh sanctions, including diplomatic and economic measures.
The moves will be discussed at a meeting of the Government’s emergency COBRA committee this morning chaired by Theresa May, with the security of ships in the region also on the agenda.In a sign of mounting diplomatic pressure, Iran’s ambassador to the UK warned yesterday that any new actions would be “quite dangerous and unwise” for the Middle East. The vessel was commandeered in Omani waters by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, with its 23 crew members taken away to be questioned.
The incident took place two weeks after Royal Marines helped in the seizure of Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar, due to evidence it was carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
Mr Duncan Smith said the crisis raised “genuine questions” about the behaviour of the UK Government, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt busy fighting the Tory leadership contest.
“The fact is that we have seized an Iranian tanker,” he told the BBC.
“If something didn’t send an alarm signal that we needed to have serious assets or protection and convoying of our vessels in that area then I want to know why not.”
The former Tory leader also claimed to have been told by “reasonable sources” the US had offered to lend its support to British ships in the region, but this option was not taken up. However, a Government spokesman later described this suggestion as “completely untrue”, adding there was “extensive ongoing co-operation with the US about maritime security in the Gulf”.
“We always keep the situation in the Gulf under review and discussions are under way with the US and other partners about how best to enhance protection for our shipping,” the spokesman said.
Chancellor Philip Hammond also denied claims the Government had taken its “eye off the ball”, with Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood adding that escorting every ship would be impossible.
Audio footage has emerged between Iranian authorities and HMS Montrose moments before the Stena Impero was seized. In the radio recording, the Iranian vessel can be heard saying: “If you obey, you will be safe. Alter your course immediately. I want to inspect the ship for security reasons.”
In a warning to British ministers, Hamid Baeidinejad, the Iranian ambassador to the UK, said any further sanctions would only serve to inflame the situation.
“UK Government should contain those domestic political forces who want to escalate existing tension between Iran and the UK well beyond the issue of ships,” he wrote on Twitter.
“This is quite dangerous and unwise at a sensitive time in the region.”