Britain’s new call to establish a “European-led maritime protection mission” is gaining the support of key EU nations France and Germany. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced on Monday that the new allied security force in the gulf would provide safe passage for international vessels in the vital oil transit waterway, protecting them from Iranian “state piracy”. But UK officials at the same time emphasized their continued commitment to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), despite soaring tensions.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers on Tuesday, “we are setting up a European initiative, with Britain and Germany, to ensure that there is a mission to monitor and observe maritime security in the Gulf,” but stopped short of backing the UK’s call for a deployment of joint naval forces, only calling it an “observation” mission for the purpose of “de-escalation”.
Like with Hunt’s initial introduction of the plan, France is seeking to distance itself from the United States’ build-up of military forces to counter Iran. “This is the opposite of the American initiative which is about maximum pressure to make Iran go back on a certain number of objectives,” Le Drian said.
“In that respect, we should even go further and think about a joint securitisation approach in the Gulf, diplomatically speaking. This way, we’ll really be in a logic of de-escalation,” he added, but without specifying details.
Previously US allies had rebuffed and resisted White house calls for an anti-Iran naval forces, fearing it would worsen already soaring tensions, but it appears last Friday’s dramatic Iranian military seizure of two British tankers (with one, the UK-flagged Stena Impero still in Iran’s custody) has changed Europe’s tune.
Addressing Britain’s Parliament in London on Monday, Foreign Secretary Hunt condemned Iran’s seizure and continued detention of the UK-flagged Stena Impero. “Let us be clear, under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage, let alone board her,” Hunt told the House of Commons. “It was therefore an act of state piracy.”
“We will seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of crew and cargo in this vital region,” he said. “We have had constructive discussion with a number of countries in the last 48 hours and we will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent U.S. proposals in this area,” Hunt added.
Iran, for its part, says it’s rightly responding to the UK’s early July seizure of the Grace 1, which been transporting 2 million barrels of Iranian oil to Syria.
An unnamed Western diplomat told Reuters last week, “The Americans want to create an ‘alliance of the willing’ who confront future attacks,” but at the time asserted, “Nobody wants to be on that confrontational course and part of a U.S. push against Iran.”
But it appears the UK’s hand has been forced, now establishing just such a force in the gulf. Though France and Germany will likely remain reluctant to approve deployment of naval forces, instead signalling a pure observational and ‘monitoring’ role, any further tanker seizures by Iran could easily change that.
The Royal Navy currently has a couple of warships escorting tankers out of the region, with further new unconfirmed reports that it’s deployed a nuclear-powered attack submarine to the region to bolster its force.