22nd July 2019

Sir Nicholas’s Question to the Foreign Secretary on the taking by Iran of the Stena Impero. 

Ministerial Statement on the Situation in the Gulf. House of Commons, Monday, 22nd July, 2019


I entirely support what the Foreign Secretary has said and the actions that he intends to take. May I ask him three particular points? The Strait of Hormuz must be the most overflown and monitored sea area in the entire world, and I would be grateful, therefore, for these answers. First, when did the Stena Impero leave Fujairah? Secondly, what time was HMS Montrose first alerted to her passage? Finally, what advice did the Stena ship seek of the British Government before she sailed?

On the first question, I will write to my right hon. Friend, because I do not have to hand the exact time and date that the Stena Impero left Fujairah. The warning that HMS Montrose had was 60 minutes, which was not long enough. We ask all shipowners to give us at least 24 hours’ notice. We did not get it in this case, but that does not excuse a criminal act of piracy. We do hope now that all shipowners will co-operate fully in giving us the notice that we need to give them the protection that we are able to give.

22 July 2019
Volume 663
No 334
Column 1124-1125


Situation in the Gulf


With permission, I will make a statement about the situation in the Gulf.

At approximately 4 pm UK time on Friday, Iranian forces intercepted the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the strait of Hormuz. The ship was surrounded by four fast boats from the Revolutionary Guard, supported by one helicopter. Iranian footage showed masked gunmen in desert camouflage descending from the helicopter on to the deck of the Stena Impero. HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate currently deployed in the Gulf, tried to come to the tanker’s aid. She repeatedly warned the Iranians by radio that their actions were illegal, but HMS Montrose was unable to reach the scene in time. Nine days earlier she had successfully intercepted an attempt to board another tanker, British Heritage, but this time she was not given the notice of passage requested that would have allowed her to reach the scene more quickly. That, however, in no way excuses the illegal actions of the intruders, who took control of Stena Impero and compelled her to steer towards the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where she is now being held.

The tanker had a crew of 23 from various countries including India, the Philippines, Russia and Latvia. No Britons were on board, and there are no reports of any injuries. The vessel’s owners have confirmed that Stena Impero was exercising her legal right of transit passage when she was intercepted. She was passing through the strait of Hormuz in the westbound traffic lane inside Omani territorial waters, in full compliance with international law and the rules of navigation, and the tanker’s automatic identification system was switched on and her position was publicly available. So let us be absolutely clear: 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 that the House will have no hesitation in condemning.

Even more worryingly, this incident was a flagrant breach of the principle of free navigation on which the global trading system and world economy ultimately depend. I therefore urge Iran to release the Stena Impero and her crew and observe the rules that safeguard commercial shipping and that benefit Iran as much as any other country.

Iran has tried to present this as a tit-for-tat incident following the Government of Gibraltar’s action on 4 July to enforce EU sanctions by preventing the Iranian chartered tanker Grace 1 from supplying oil to Syria, but there is simply no comparison between Iran’s illegal seizure of a vessel inside a recognised shipping lane where the Stena Impero had every right to be and the enforcement of EU sanctions against a tanker that had freely navigated into the waters of a British overseas territory.

Since 4 July, we have made strenuous efforts to resolve the Grace 1 issue. On 13 July I spoke by phone to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and also made clear in public that we would be content with the release of Grace 1 if there were sufficient guarantees that the oil would not go to any entities sanctioned by the EU. But instead of responding constructively, Iran chose to seize the Stena Impero, so we must now take appropriate action to support the safe passage of vessels through the strait of Hormuz.

As well as speaking again to my Iranian counterpart, I have also spoken this weekend and today to the Foreign Ministers of Oman, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain and Denmark. COBRA meetings were held this morning and throughout the weekend, and the chargé d’affaires at the Iranian embassy in London was summoned to the Foreign Office on Saturday to receive a formal protest.

I can today update the House on further action we are taking. First, the Department for Transport has raised the security level for British-flagged shipping to level 3, advising against all passage in Iranian waters and, for the moment, in the entire strait of Hormuz.

Secondly, because freedom of navigation is a vital interest of every nation, 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. We have had constructive discussions with a number of countries in the last 48 hours, and will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent US proposals in this area. The new force will be focused on free navigation, bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquefied natural gas and trade worth half a trillion dollars pass through the strait of Hormuz every year. It will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran, because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.

Thirdly, while we will seek to establish this mission as quickly as possible, the Government have in the meantime dispatched HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, to take over from HMS Montrose, and she will arrive in the region by 29 July—a week from today. Fourthly, we will ask all British-flagged ships to give us notice of any intention to pass through the strait of Hormuz, to enable us to offer the best protection we can. We will then advise them of the safest way to transit, which may involve travelling in convoy. Finally, we are strengthening measures to protect ships flying the flags of other countries but which have British crew on board.

About 1,300 ships appear on the UK ship register”. The combined British red ensign fleet is the ninth largest in the world, and on an average day two or three ships belonging to the red ensign group pass through the strait of Hormuz. The Gulf spans an area of nearly 100,000 square miles, and HMS Montrose covers an operating area of some 19,000 nautical miles. So far, she has escorted 30 merchant vessels through the strait of Hormuz during 17 separate transits, travelling 4,800 nautical miles in the process. It is not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship, or indeed to eliminate all risks of piracy, but those risks can be substantially reduced if commercial shipping companies co-operate fully with instructions from the Department of Transport, which we strongly encourage them to do.

These changes—both short and medium-term—are made possible because of the commitment that this Government have already made to increase our security presence in the Gulf, including the opening in April last year of the first permanent British naval facility in the Gulf for over 40 years. This establishment in Bahrain now hosts HMS Montrose, along with four mine countermeasure vessels and one supply ship.

Finally, let me say that it is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary. We do not seek confrontation with Iran. We have taken every available opportunity to reduce misunderstanding while standing by our rock-solid commitment to the international rule of law, which is the foundation of global peace and prosperity. However, we must react to the world around us as it is, not as we would wish it to be, so if Iran continues on this dangerous path, it must accept that the price will be a larger western military presence in the waters along its coastline, not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle that Britain and its allies will always defend. I commend this statement to the House.



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