Thu. 8:59 a.m.: Britain says Iranian vessels tried to block tanker in Gulf

In this image from file video provided by UK Ministry of Defence, British navy vessel HMS Montrose escorts another ship during a mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria at sea off coast of Cyprus in February 2014. The British Navy said it intercepted an attempt early today by three Iranian paramilitary vessels to impede the passage of a British commercial vessel just days after Iran’s president warned of repercussions for the seizure of its own supertanker. (UK Ministry of Defence via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The British navy said it prevented three Iranian paramilitary vessels from impeding the passage of a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz early today, a day after Iran’s president warned of repercussions for the seizure of its own supertanker.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard denied the allegations, saying if it had received orders to seize any ships it would have done so immediately.

The incident came at a time of heightened tensions over Iran’s unraveling nuclear agreement with world powers. Iran recently began breaching uranium enrichment limits in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement last year and its imposition of sweeping sanctions.

In recent months, the U.S. has dispatched thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, bombers and advanced fighter jets to the region. Washington has blamed Iran for a series of mysterious attacks on oil tankers — charges denied by Tehran — and said it shot down an American drone in international airspace. Iran said it downed the drone after it veered into its own airspace.

The U.K. government said in a statement that British navy vessel HMS Montrose had been accompanying the commercial ship, British Heritage, through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway for energy shipments .

“HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away,” the government statement said.

“We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region,” it added.

The HMS Montrose is currently on a three-year mission at the British navy’s support facility in Bahrain, the hub of Britain’s naval operations east of the Suez Canal.

The U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain and Central Command declined to comment on the incident.

Russia and China, both signatories to the nuclear agreement, called for restraint. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “freedom of navigation should be ensured in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.”

Maritime security risk firm Dryad Global described the British Heritage as an oil tanker operated by BP and registered in the Isle of Man. Lloyd’s List, a publication specializing in maritime affairs, said Shell had chartered the ship from BP.

Lloyd’s List said the British Heritage had diverted from its route to load its 140,000-ton cargo of crude at Basra, Iraq, as planned on July 4, the same day the Iranian tanker was intercepted off Gibraltar. It said the vessel instead headed to Saudi waters where it had remained for several days.

Since July 2, at least 20 British-flagged ships have sailed through the Strait of Hormuz, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data.

BP issued a brief statement saying the company’s “top priority is the safety and security of our crews and vessels” and thanking the Royal Navy for their support. The British multinational oil and gas firm declined to comment further on the incident.

Around 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Mideast producers. Iran has periodically threatened to close the shipping lane if it is prevented from exporting its own oil. The U.S. sanctions have largely shut down its oil exports.

The U.S. has vowed to keep the strait open to commercial traffic. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked Mideast allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to contribute financially and militarily to an idea the Trump administration is floating around called the Sentinel Program. The aim would be to have a coalition of nations working with the U.S. to preserve maritime security in the Persian Gulf and keep eyes on Iran.

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