Jeremy Hunt accused Iran of “state piracy” yesterday as he announced the UK was shunning the US in favour of a European response to the tensions in the Gulf.
The foreign secretary launched the verbal attack on Tehran after Iranian soldiers seized a British-flagged tanker in the region on Friday.
Hunt urged Iran to release the vessel and its 23-man crew as he branded the actions of the oil-rich theocracy as illegal.
In what could be his final appearance in the Commons as foreign secretary, Hunt announced the UK would join a European-led mission to provide security for other vessels in the region.
The UK was avoiding working with the US because of President Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, he said.
Hunt told MPs: “Let us be absolutely clear: under international law Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage, let alone board her.
“It was therefore an act of state piracy which the House will have no hesitation in condemning.
“Even more worryingly, this incident was a flagrant breach of the principle of free navigation on which the global trading system and world economy ultimately depends.”
Setting out the UK response to the dramatic escalation of tension in the region, Hunt confirmed all British ships should now avoid Iranian waters and the entire Strait of Hormuz.
He added that the UK had held “constructive discussions” with a number of European countries about setting up a “maritime protection mission” to ensure the safety of vessels in the region.
“It will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement,” he added.
Hunt’s statement came against a backdrop of increasing questions over how relations with Iran had deteriorated so drastically.
Tory MP Huw Merriman claimed the government had “dropped the ball” over the crisis.
“We knew from 4 July, having seized an Iranian tanker that we suspected was breaching EU sanctions and heading with oil to Syria, that there would be some form of reprisal and that’s exactly what we’ve got,” he told the BBC.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith argued May had made a “major miscalculation” by turning down an offer of US protection for British ships.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman hit back at the suggestion, saying: “There has never been a US offer that involved escorting UK ships.”