U.K. Navy Heard in Audio Trying to Thwart Iran Ship Seizure

Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops wearing ski masks are seen on board a helicopter flying over British-flagged tanker Stena Impero near the strait of Hormuz, Friday. (Pool via WANA/Reuters)

In an audio recording released Sunday, a British naval officer can be heard saying the transit of a British-flagged vessel through the Strait of Hormuz must not be impaired under international law as Iranian naval forces warn the vessel to change course.

The audio, released by maritime security risk firm Dryad Global, shows how the British navy was unable to prevent the ship’s seizure by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces on Friday. The seizure has prompted condemnation from the U.K. and its European allies as they continue to call for a de-escalation of tensions in the critical waterway.

In the recording, an Iranian officer can be heard telling the Stena Impero to change course, saying: “You obey, you will be safe.”

“Alter your course to 360 degrees immediately, over,” the officer says, before saying the ship is wanted for security reasons.

A British naval officer from the HMS Montrose frigate patrolling the area around the Strait of Hormuz is heard telling the Stena Impero, which had a crew of 23 on board, that its passage must be allowed.

“Sir, I reiterate that as you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, intruded, obstructed or hampered,” the British officer says.

The British officer then tells an Iranian patrol boat: “Please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the MV Stena.”

Iranian officials say the seizure of the British oil tanker was a response to Britain’s role in impounding an Iranian supertanker two weeks earlier.

Friday’s incident comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran stemming from President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers and reinstate sweeping sanctions. The U.S. has expanded its military presence in the region, while Iran has begun openly exceeding uranium enrichment levels set in the nuclear accord to pressure Europe to alleviate the pain caused by the sanctions.

Britain’s Defense Secretary Tobias Ellwood reiterated calls for de-escalation on Sunday in an interview with Sky News.

“Well, firstly we need to try and de-escalate this. There has been a ratcheting up of tensions in the Middle East,” he said, before adding that Friday’s seizure is “a hostile act” by Iran.

Ellwood also noted that the British Royal Navy “is too small to manage our interests across the globe” and that this would be an issue for the next prime minister to recognize.

The free flow of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz is of international importance because one-fifth of all global crude exports pass through the narrow waterway between Iran and Oman.

In Tehran, some 160 lawmakers on Sunday issued a joint statement praising the interception of the British-flagged vessel by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has released video of the seizure showing Iranian commandos in black ski masks and fatigues rappelling from a helicopter onto the vessel.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used the opening session of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) forum in Venezuela on Saturday to blast U.S. foreign policy under Trump.

“A new wave of extreme one-sided adventurism from the United States is the main theme and the challenge that we all face in one way or another,” he said. “It’s threatening peace and stability all around the world in different ways.”

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke to reporters after an emergency government meeting over the “totally and utterly unacceptable” interception of the Stena Impero.

He defended Britain’s role in seizing the Iranian tanker on July 4 as a legal move because it was suspected of breaching EU sanctions on oil shipments to Syria. Officials in Spain, near Gibraltar, initially said the ship’s seizure had been requested by the U.S.

Hunt said Iranian officials “see this as a tit-for-tat situation, following Grace 1 being detained in Gibraltar. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Germany’s foreign minister meanwhile warned Iran that its seizure of commercial vessels is contributing to an “escalation spiral” that could lead to war.

Heiko Maas said in comments to Bild newspaper’s Sunday edition that the seizure of the British tanker and the temporary detention of another has made the situation in the Gulf “a lot more serious and dangerous than it has been.” He said European efforts are focused on keeping diplomatic channels open with “voices of reason” despite the challenges involved.

“This is about preventing war,” he said.

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