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Hunt to dial down tensions in the Gulf after seizure of Iranian tanker

The Foreign Secretary to seek support from European allies to keep alive the international nuclear deal with Tehran.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Alastair Grant/PA)
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Alastair Grant/PA)

Jeremy Hunt is to launch a fresh diplomatic bid to prevent the Iran nuclear deal unravelling and to ease tensions in the Gulf.

The Foreign Secretary will travel to Brussels on Monday for a meeting of EU foreign ministers to seek support from the European signatories to the agreement – France and Germany.

In a joint statement ahead of the meeting, the three European powers said they were “deeply troubled” by recent events in the region and urged the US and the Iran to draw back from conflict.

“We believe the time has come to act responsibly and seek a path to stop the escalation of tensions and resume dialogue,” the statement said.

“The risks are such that it is necessary for all stakeholders to pause and consider the possible consequences of their actions.”

Mr Hunt’s visit comes after he offered to help secure the release of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 held in Gibraltar after being detained in an operation involving British Royal Marines.

In a telephone call with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Saturday, Mr Hunt sought to reassure him the vessel was intercepted over suspicions it was carrying oil to Syria – and not because it was Iranian.

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Jeremy Hunt offered to facilitate the release of the Grace 1 tanker held in Gibraltar (Marcos Moreno/AP/PA)

He said he had offered to facilitate the tanker’s release in return for guarantees from Tehran that it would not breach EU sanctions on the Assad regime.

The move comes amid heightened tensions in the Gulf following Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the nuclear deal.

Last week, a Royal Navy warship intervened to drive off Iranian patrol boats after they approached a British tanker as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz.

It prompted fears the Iranians were trying to seize a UK ship in retaliation for the detention of the Grace 1.

It was the latest in a series of incidents in the region prompting fears of a slide into all out conflict.

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HMS Montrose drove off Iranian patrol boats after they approached a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz (Steve Parsons/PA)

In recent weeks, the US has sent thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Middle East.

Iran, meanwhile, has begun exceeding limits on uranium enrichment agreed in the 2015 deal amid frustration in Tehran at the return of crippling US economic sanctions.

While the Europeans say they still support the agreement – which lifted sanctions in return for Iran curbing its nuclear programme – in practice they have found it difficult to get round the US measures.

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(PA Graphics)

Ahead of the meeting in Brussels, Mr Hunt said: “The Middle East is already one of the most unstable regions in the world, but if the different parties were armed with nuclear weapons it would represent an existential threat to mankind. I will do everything in my power to prevent that from happening.

“I’ll be building on the leadership shown by the UK, alongside France and Germany, as we do what it takes to maintain the nuclear deal, and to work to encourage Iran back into compliance.”

At the same time Mr Hunt stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the Gulf.

“Following the brave work of our Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf we will work with partners to maintain the right of commercial ships to go about their rightful business,” he said.

PA

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