Relations with Iran remain 'tense' as Royal Navy and US Navy launch fresh mission to protect ships in the Gulf

RELATIONSHIPS between Britain and Iran are ‘cordial’ despite a string of attacks on merchant vessels in the Gulf, British naval leaders in the region have insisted.

Wednesday, 13th November 2019, 5:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 13th November 2019, 8:08 pm
Portsmouth-based frigate HMS Kent pictured in the Gulf escorting ships. Photo: Royal Navy

Military chiefs from the Royal Navy said efforts to ‘de-escalate’ tensions in the troubled waters were on course but warned the situation was still ‘tense’.

Iran has been blamed for a series of attacks on oil tankers – including the British-flagged Stena Impero – in the Gulf of Oman this year, which it denies.

Now a new naval coalition, featuring a number of Portsmouth-based warships and hundreds of city sailors, has officially launched operations to protect the world’s under-threat oil supply.

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The British contingent who have helped to set up the new IMSC, an international coalition which is helping to protect shipping from enemy states. Photo: LPhot Rory Arnold

The alliance, known as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), has been making headway since June, under the watchful gaze of Gosport naval officer Commander Ben Keith, head of operations.

Dubbed ‘Operation Sentinel’, the new mission will see an alliance of seven military nations using their warships to bodyguard vessels as they sail through the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic choke point at the head of the Gulf which is the world’s critical oil superhighway.

And although it’s been launched in direct response to supposed attacks by Iran, leaders behind the coalition have insisted the new operation is not ‘targeting any one state in particular’.

Cdr Keith, who has previously commanded Portsmouth-based destroyer HMS Diamond, said: ‘Right now we believe the threat, certainly over the summer, has been sponsored by Iran. But we’re not aimed at one particular state.

Lieutenant Sam Yee, 35, a Royal Navy reservist based at HMS King Alfred on Whale Island, was one of five British personnel at the IMSC in Bahrain. Photo: LPhot Rory Arnold

‘We are a deterrent operation and we’re there for reassurance and deterrence. We can manoeuvre to get in the way and to stop any activity that’s happening and we will defend if necessary… anything that’s more offensive than that, that’s not our mandate.’

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But Cdr Keith warned the straits were still dangerous following an alleged limpet mine attack attributed to Iran in June.

‘Those threats are very live and they’re certainly ones we should be concerned about,’ he told The News in Bahrain.

‘Everybody in the UK, as an island nation, has a vested interest in IMSC to ensure that trade keeps flowing.

‘I talk about the gas that flows out of Qatar to the UK. It doesn’t take much. If you stop one of those ships that are permanently in transit then the lights will start to go out.’

Large naval vessels such as frigates and destroyers from the US, UK and Australian navies will act as ‘sentinels’ patrolling ‘high-threat areas to deter malign activity’, Cdr Keith said.

Among the Royal Navy ships drafted into the operation include frigates HMS Kent and HMS Montrose and destroyer HMS Defender.

Smaller vessels – sentries – will patrol key transit lanes, while airborne surveillance will monitor traffic through the highest risk areas.

All the data is monitored inside a central headquarters on the US military base in Bahrain.

Lieutenant Sam Yee, 35, a Royal Navy reservist based at HMS King Alfred on Whale Island, was one of five British personnel at the new facility and has helped to get the operation running.

He monitors a screen, filled with hundreds of ships, for 12 hours a day and is key in reassuring merchant vessels and spotting potentially hostile ones.

He said: ‘This is really exciting. Although we’re watchkeeping now, we were part of the formulation of everything that was set up here. So we feel a real ownership about it. We’re right at the front line of this, making a tangible difference in the world.’

Vice-Admiral James Malloy, commander of US Naval Forces, US 5th Fleet, told The News the military organisation would send out a powerful message to the region.

He said: ‘Threats to the maritime security and free flow of legitimate commerce in this region are an international problem requiring international solutions.

‘Like a sentinel on watch, what IMSC seeks to do is shine a light on malign activity and ensure that freedom of navigation and mariners are not threatened in the waterways and if so they will be exposed.’

The coalition, currently based in air-conditioned tents, can be ‘scaled up or scaled down’ depending on the situation in the Gulf.

Leaders hope it will act as a deterrence and help to ‘normalise’ the region.

The Gulf is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, with 17,000 ships transiting through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait every year.

One sixth of global oil production and one third of the world’s natural gas transit through the Strait of Hormuz.