Second British destroyer heads to Iran to protect merchant ships

Stena Impero. Credit: Hannes van Rijn

British naval destroyer HMS Duncan and four mine-countermeasures vessels have arrived to assist HMS Montrose in guarding British-flagged tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz, despite concerns that there are not enough vessels to provide a credible deterrent.

The developments arose after the seizure of British-flagged Stena Impero and Liberian-flagged tanker Mesdar, during which Iranian patrol boats escorted the vessels to Bandar Abbas port. The move was regarded as payback for the seizure of Iranian-flagged tanker Grace 1 by British marine commandos earlier in July.

Stena Impero is still being held at Bandar Abbas, on the condition that Grace 1 be released. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt criticised the seizures in a statement to the press, calling the breach of freedom of navigation “unacceptable”. “We’re absolutely clear that, if this situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences.”

However, he added, “We are not looking at military options, we are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation but we are very clear that it must be resolved.” Hunt has called for a European coalition to protect shipping in the region.

The Strait of Hormuz is a complex arena for navies, with a major bottleneck and areas shallow enough to limit access to deep-draft vessels, and other areas deep enough for submarines to avoid detection. The geography of the region is to enable considerable capacity for asymmetrical naval combat.

The UK is hesitant to follow the US in breaking the Iran nuclear treaty, negotiated at the time of the Obama administration, as well as the US’ aggressive posturing toward Iran, with an invasion understood to be a distinct possibility. Mark Gray, a retired Royal Marines colonel, was quoted in an Iranian press as saying that “The vessels must have the authorisation to fire warning shots, and also, if necessary, target rounds against boats and helicopters. If not, the Iranians will call our bluff and board, even if escorted.”