Aim is to create international mission to safeguard shipping through strait near Iran
The UK has invited military representatives of the US, France and other European countries to a meeting in Bahrain on Wednesday in an attempt to create an international mission to safeguard shipping through the strait of Hormuz.
Britain hopes it can act as bridge between the US – which has the largest military presence of a western nation in the region – and countries such as Germany, which is reluctant to getting involved in any mission led by Washington.
Whitehall sources said the British proposal to create a European-led mission to prevent future tanker seizures by Iran was still alive despite the dismissal of Jeremy Hunt as as foreign secretary in Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle.
But they conceded its success would be dependent on the involvement of the US, “whether at the head of or in support of the mission”. The US’s Fifth Fleet, responsible for the Gulf, is based in Bahrain.
Two weeks ago Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero. Tehran said the tanker had cut off its communications system. The UK said it was seized illegally in Omani waters.
The seizure demonstrated the difficulties that Britain has in protecting its shipping in the strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil passes through.
Although a Royal Navy vessel – the HMS Montrose – was in the region trying to protect British shipping, it was an hour’s sail away when the seizure occurred. A second British ship, the HMS Duncan, has been sent to the Gulf, but the ships are trying to cover a range of 19,000 nautical miles.
The Iranian seizure came after the UK seized an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar that Britain said was bound for Syria in defiance of EU sanctions.
British officials argue that other European countries should get involved in an international naval mission that has latterly been an Anglo-Iranian dispute because “they have skin in the game” given the importance of the continuity of oil supplies.
The meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon and is not expected to lead to an immediate outcome, British officials have indicated. They said proposals would be taken back to national governments for further discussion.
Separately, the US embassy in Berlin confirmed it had formally asked Germany, as well as Britain and France, to join it in a naval mission in the Gulf, which could form part of the UK-led efforts.
Diplomatic sources said the statement was an attempt to put pressure on Germany to become involved. “We’ve formally asked Germany to join France and the UK to help secure the strait of Hormuz and combat Iranian aggression,” said a US embassy spokesperson in Berlin.
The embassy added: “Members of the German government have been clear that freedom of navigation should be protected … Our question is: protected by whom?”
There is considerable opposition among Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partners in Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition, to getting involved in a US-led mission.
“The German government has already rejected participation in the US military mission, Operation Sentinel, to protect shipping in the strait of Hormuz,” said Nils Schmid, a foreign affairs spokesman for the SPD parliamentary party, in an interview with Stuttgarter Zeitung. “It should stay like that. Otherwise, there is a risk of being pulled into a war against Iran on the side of the United States.”