Tehran will not be happy with the foreign secretary’s bid to form a European-led maritime force.
By Deborah Haynes, Sky News foreign affairs editor
It is either a clever way to navigate a difficult dilemma in the Gulf or a miscalculation.
Jeremy Hunt, in what may be his last act as foreign secretary, has unveiled a plan to build a European-led maritime forceto protect ships in the Strait of Hormuz from Iranian attack.
The desire seems to be for this initiative to co-ordinate with a US push to create a coalition to provide escorts to international vessels transiting through the region but – significantly – for it to be a separate entity.
Keeping Washington at arms-length will doubtless make it easier for European powers like France and Germany to sign up as it would not mean direct alignment with President Donald Trump on an issue related to Tehran.
This is important because, unusually for a big global issue, Europe has been at odds with the United States on Iran ever since President Trump withdrew his country from a nuclear deal between the regime and other world powers last year and re-imposed sanctions.
Iran is accused of responding to this pressure by launching attacks against international tankers in the Gulf – a charge that it denies.
HMS Montrose, recently based in the Gareloch, was called into action in the Gulf. Picture by Bill Heaney
President Trump also began calling for a coalition of navies to enhance maritime security.
In fact, as we learnt today, Washington first asked London to be part of this force last month.
But the UK has been reluctant to be involved out of concern that such a move would be interpreted by Tehran as an escalatory step and Britain siding with the wider US policy on Iran, further undermining what is left of the nuclear accord.
Instead British officials had until now pointed to a multi-national naval operation that already exists in the Gulf to counter narcotics and piracy as a command structure that could be adapted to meet the security threat to ships posed by Iran as well.
The use of the US-led Combined Maritime Forces of more than 30 nations would have been a less escalatory move as it would not necessarily have meant boosting warship numbers.
But the British calculation has changed in the wake of Iran’s seizure of the UK-flagged Stena Impero on Friday.
Iran said it’s action was a tit-for-tat repose to Britain ‘s role in the seizure of one of its tankers off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month.
The UK dismissed this excuse, saying it had been acting legally out of suspicion the Iranian Grace 1 was going to violate EU sanctions on transporting oil to Syria.
The detention of the Stena Impero is why Britain is building this new force, though details were rather light from the foreign secretary on who would be involved, how many warships and surveillance aircraft would be deployed and when the thing would be up and running.
Still by making it a European-led initiative, it means there remains distance between Europe and the US over Iran – that is the clever part.
What may make the plan unravel, however, is capability, capacity and commitment.
European militaries lack sufficient warships, aircraft and refuelling platforms to be able to sustain the size of force needed to provide credible and lasting protection to shipping.
They will need at the very least the logistical support of the United States.
Seizure of UK-flagged tanker
New maritime protection mission proposal after Iran’s ‘state piracy’
Will Washington be happy to let Europe have its own, bespoke maritime protection force that merely complements its efforts to patrol Gulf waters? Or will it want the Europeans to fold underneath the umbrella of a wider US-led coalition?
If the former, then this plan could work.
If the latter then – unless Britain and its European allies are comfortable with such close alignment with the US on a counter-Iran initiative – the European force will likely flounder.
On top of all of this is the as-yet unknown response from Iran to the planned increase in the number of western warships off its coastline.
One thing is certain, Tehran will not be happy.
It may choose to release the British-flagged tanker and stop posing a threat to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz – as alleged by Britain and the United States.
Or it may increase this kind of activity in which case the chance of actual conflict will rise.