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Theresa May to chair Cobra meeting after British-flagged oil tanker seizure

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to update the Commons amid report of fresh sanctions on Iran.

Theresa May was not present at ministerial Cobra meetings over the weekend (PA)
Theresa May was not present at ministerial Cobra meetings over the weekend (PA)

Theresa May will chair a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee Cobra on Monday after Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.

The Prime Minister is expected to receive updates from ministers and officials on the situation and will discuss the maintenance of the security of shipping in the region.

Mrs May was not present at ministerial Cobra meetings over the weekend – which she spent in her Maidenhead constituency – but was kept informed of developments.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will update the Commons on the situation on Monday afternoon, amid reports that ministers are considering freezing Iranian regime assets.

He is expected to tell MPs what further measures the Government will take.

On Sunday evening, the Foreign Office confirmed Mr Hunt had spoken with his French and German counterparts who agreed that a “safe passage for vessels” through the economically significant Strait of Hormuz was “a top priority” for Europe.

It came as unnamed intelligence sources in The Telegraph warned of possible reprisals for the UK if the standoff between Westminster and Tehran continued.

Ministers also denied reports that the UK’s focus on domestic politics was partly to blame for the the vessel being commandeered in Omani waters in the Strait of Hormuz.

Chancellor Philip Hammond’s parliamentary aide Huw Merriman told BBC Radio 4 that the Government “have dropped the ball” over the situation.

Mr Merriman said: “Just to show that I’m not the puppet of Philip Hammond or Jeremy Hunt, I take the view that we have dropped the ball here … we did not put in place a chain where we asked all of our vessels to leave at a certain time under convoy.

We have dropped the ball here Huw Merriman

“So it was hardly a surprise when one of ours got taken,” he added on the Westminster Hour.

Mr Hammond insisted the Government had been “very much engaged with both the Americans and our European partners in the response to Iran’s increasing defiance of the JCPOA over the last few months”.

And Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said the UK had vessels going through 100 nautical miles of waterway every day in the region, adding: “It is impossible simply to escort each individual vessel.”

He also called for more money to be invested in the Royal Navy if Britain wants to continue to play a role on the international stage.

The opposition’s Carolyn Harris also appeared on BBC Radio 4, where Carolyn Quinn asked if Labour would provide more funding to the armed services.

Ms Harris replied: “I’d like to think that we would be building up, not just the Royal Navy, but the Air Force and the Army, because they are depleted and we do need to be building up our armed forces.”

Meanwhile, audio footage 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.”

HMS Montrose replied: “You must not impair, impede, obstruct or hamper the passage of the Stena Impero. Please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by attempting to board.”

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Map locates where British-flagged oil tanker seized by Iranians (PA Graphics)

Reports from Tehran state those on board the Stena Impero are safe and well.

Iran has directly linked the seizure of the vessel with Britain’s role in detaining a tanker carrying Iranian oil earlier this month.

A spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council was quoted as saying “the rule of reciprocal action is well known in international law” and that Tehran made the right decision in the face of an “illegitimate economic war and seizure of oil tankers”.

The explanation, which contrasts with a suggestion on Friday night that the Stena Impero was “violating international maritime rules” and had collided with a fishing boat, came as the UK Government warned British ships to stay away from the Strait of Hormuz.

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A speedboat from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard moves around the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero (Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency via AP)

HMS Montrose, which is patrolling the Persian Gulf to protect shipping, and earlier this month intercepted Iranian patrol boats surrounding another UK-flagged tanker, reportedly arrived minutes too late to prevent the latest incident.

A second oil tanker, the Liberian-flagged Mesdar, which is managed by Norbulk Shipping UK, veered off course towards the Iranian coast after it was boarded by armed guards at about 5.30pm on Friday.

Communication with the ship was later re-established and the crew were unharmed. The tanker was reportedly allowed to resume navigation.

France and Germany joined condemnation of Iran’s actions, which have triggered concerns that it will lead to further oil price hikes amid heightened tensions in the Gulf involving Iran, the US and UK.

PA

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