LONDON — Britain could send extra military assets to the Strait of Hormuz to deter any attempt by Iran to block Persian Gulf oil tanker traffic, the country’s defence secretary said Tuesday, as Tehran insisted an EU ban on the purchase of its oil would have little sting.
Two British and French warships and the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln entered the Gulf Sunday to warn Iran any interference with global shipping won’t be tolerated, Philip Hammond told reporters.
Iranian leaders have repeated long-standing threats to close off the Strait, which handles a fifth of the world’s oil, after the European Union imposed the embargo Monday as part of sanctions to pressure Tehran into resuming talks on the country’s controversial nuclear program.
Iran summoned the Danish ambassador to Tehran Tuesday over the EU’s oil embargo. Denmark is currently the head of the rotating EU presidency.
“Elements within the European Union, by pursuing the policies of the U.S. and adopting a hostile approach, are seeking to create tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Ali Asghar Khaji, a senior Foreign Ministry official, as saying. He called the EU decision “irrational.”
Other Iranian officials argued the sanctions would not work, or could even benefit Iran. “Europe will be the loser and Iran will earn more because of high prices,” Iran’s oil ministry spokesman Alireza Nikzad Rahbar told state TV.
Hammond said the three warships — which included Britain’s HMS Argyll frigate and France’s frigate La Motte Picquet — that entered the Gulf on Sunday had sent “a clear signal about the resolve of the international community to defend the right of free passage through international waters.”
He also confirmed “the U.K. has a contingent capability to reinforce that presence should at any time it be considered necessary to do so.”
Britain’s defence ministry declined to offer specific detail on what assets and personnel are currently in the Persian Gulf, but said it had about 1,500 Navy personnel in the region east of Suez, which includes the Middle East and Indian Ocean.
Four anti-mine vessels are based out of Bahrain, while Britain also has two frigates — including HMS Argyll — three support ships, a survey vessel and one hunter-killer nuclear submarine in the region, the ministry said.
In Paris, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the French warship, which specializes in countering submarine attacks, has since separated from the British and American vessels, but remains on a “presence mission” in the Persian Gulf.
France doesn’t have plans to deploy more forces to the zone, said Burkhard, noting that it has a small base in the United Arab Emirates, which currently houses six Rafale warplanes and about 650 troops, including an infantry battalion.
The United States and allies have already warned they would take swift action against any Iranian moves to choke off the 30-mile (50-kilometre) wide Strait.
Though Hammond did not specify what potential reinforcements Britain could send, the U.K. last year created a Response Force Task Group — a flexible force drawn from a pool of warships, support vessels, helicopters, marines and a submarine — that can be deployed at short notice.
Jon Rosamond, editor of Jane’s Navy International magazine, said Britain has the HMS Daring, a destroyer with specialist air defence capabilities, already sailing toward Suez to carry out a six-month mission against piracy and drug smuggling. He said it could potentially play a role in countering any threat from Iranian missiles.
HMS Westminster, a frigate used during the Libya campaign last summer, left Portsmouth in southern England on Monday and could reach Hormuz within a week if needed, Rosamond said.
Britain has a number of command personnel based alongside its mine sweepers in Bahrain — home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet — and a Royal Air Force base in Cyprus which covers the zone.
Hague later told the House of Commons that Britain had “many contingency plans for many contingencies,” but insisted the U.K. and other nations were not moving toward a conflict.
“This is not a set of actions designed to lead to any conflict, but to lead us away from any conflict,” he said,
British Conservative Party lawmaker Richard Halfon said that Iran’s failure to respond to international concerns was increasingly worrying.
“No one wants war, but tragically it is looking increasingly possible,” he said.
At the centre of the dispute with Iran is concern over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is aimed at providing civilian power. The U.S. and other nations accuse Iran of attempting to build nuclear weapons, and Tehran is now under several rounds of U.N. sanctions.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, in London with Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith for talks, said his country would join the EU’s oil embargo to show Tehran its “behaviour is globally unacceptable.”
Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said Monday that Iran had the right to block Hormuz in retaliation for the oil embargo, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
Some commentators are declaring that Iran should cut the flow of crude even before the new measures go into effect in July, to punish Europe, while others say the embargo is a “gift” that will allow the country to diversity its economy.
“Ineffective Western sanctions are not a threat to us, but an opportunity that has brought a lot of benefits,” Iran’s intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi said at a gathering in the central city of Isfahan late Monday.
The measures, approved in Brussels by the EU’s 27 foreign ministers, include an immediate embargo on new contracts for crude oil and petroleum products. Existing contracts with Iran will be allowed to run until July.
Europe’s new sanctions also impose asset freezes and travel bans on three people — officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — and 11 companies, including Iran’s central bank, which is alleged to have helped circumvent previous sanctions, and the state-owned Bank Tejarat, which the EU said had “directly facilitated Iran’s nuclear efforts.”
The list was made public Tuesday in the Official Journal of the European Union.
Iran’s Oil Ministry said the country can find new markets to circumvent the oil embargo, though U.S. officials have been pressing Tehran’s main Asian oil markets to turn away from Iran.
China — which counts on Iran as its third-biggest oil supplier — has rejected sanctions and called for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. South Korea, which relies on Iran for up to 10 per cent of its oil supplies, has also been noncommittal on sanctions.
Japan, which imports about 9 per cent of its oil from Iran, has not made a decision on whether to reduce its imports. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told parliament Tuesday that Japan hoped to co-operate with the international community, but stressed the need to keep oil prices stable while making sanctions effective.
Some 80 per cent of Iran’s foreign revenue comes from oil exports, and analysts say that any sanctions affecting its ability to export oil would hit its economy hard. With about 4 million barrels per day, Iran is the second largest producer in OPEC. It exports about 2 million barrels a day and consumes the rest domestically. The EU makes up 18 per cent of Iran’s oil exports.