On the 19th of this Month, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an internationally declared terrorist organisation, seized the Stena Imperio, a British flagged oil/chemical carrier, in the Straights of Hormuz between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. On the 21st, HM’s Government took its first step; it banned all further British vessels from transiting the Straights. The Defence Secretary, Tobias Ellwood has stated that the use of force would be contraproductive and the first thing the Foreign Secretary did was to rule out military action. This is just the latest example of how the May premiership has steered erratically and rudderless, as has been pointed out by numerous analysts.
Fortunately, we now have a new PM. But it will take time and a strategy to repair this damage. We are at a cross-roads.
This is an act of piracy, direct targeting of the UK and a clear breach of international law. They claim it was a tit-for-tat after Gibraltar Police and the Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker breaking a UN Security Council Resolution banning trading with Syria. This is not true; the Iranian ship had been carrying crude oil for refining at a Syrian refinery. The British seizing of the Grace 1 was entirely within international law.
Interestingly, it was against a EU embargo against Syria, which should have been maintained by the Spanish. The Foreign and Defence Secretaries of Spain were either incompetent, or they wished to ignore the flagrant violation of EU law sailing directly under their noses. Like many politicians who have spectacularly failed at their job, the Iranophile Spanish Foreign Secretary, who personally assaults journalists and seems to have no problems with the sexist and brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime, has been promoted to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs. But it would be an injustice to say the Spanish Foreign Secretary did not decry the event: He protested the British seizing of the Grace 1 and accused the UK of being an American puppet. A common thread of May’s bungling repeats itself: Our European “allies” have let us down, while the government ignores our traditional allies’ offers of assistance and overtures. The muted response from our European “allies” to the hijacking is also noteworthy, while the government refuses US assistance.
In other words – the government will do nothing to force Iran to let go of the Stena Imperio, and have let Iran know it too. We have become an international laughing stock, and the solution to avoid sailing in the Arabian Gulf is not a workable solution. The last time something similar was announced was after the fall of Signapore in 1941, when the Pacific was overrun by the Imperial Japanese in the middle of the Second World War. This alone has been called a “watershed” and an existential failure of the Government, MoD & Royal Navy: We are retreating from a fight with our tails between our legs, running like cowards.
The Straights of Hormuz are a vital geopolitical location: Thirty percent of all oil transported internationally by sea went through those 21 mile straights, which are about the same size as the English Channel at Dover. Fortunately, the UK has significant oil deposits in the North Sea, with further exploration in the North Atlantic, but the Straights of Hormuz are vital to the transportation of easily refined, cheap, Arabian oil. We do have alternative options, including Canadian oil, but the Straights are vital for the world economy. Iran has often threatened to close the Straights in case of war, which could be easily performed and sent the price skyrocketing and the supply of oil plummeting and between them and Jeremy Hunt, they have closed the straights to British shipping.
This cannot be allowed to continue, and the new government has a variety of options to respond to the Iranian threat, militarily, and economically.
In the first place, to prevent further acts of piracy, all British registered ships in the Gulf region should be placed into convoys, and all should have a squad of Royal Marines, suitably armed with Thales LMM/Starstreak or Javelin man portable anti-aircraft & anti-surface missiles and prepared to defend their ship against any Iranian attempts to board them. To this aim, the RN would have to improve the number of ships in Operation Kipion (the Royal Navy deployment to the Gulf) to perform this operation and ensure there are sufficient escorts and any supporting vessels. The Royal Navy has an excellent squadron of Minesweepers in the Gulf, but we face more than mines and our presence there should be bolstered. There are complaints against time delays inherent in convoying, but as it worked in two world wars, it is again likely to do so here: It is surely better for a tanker to arrive a day late, than for it to not arrive at all.
Further, this should be reinforced by clear, concise and effective Rules of Engagement which enable the Royal Navy to defend themselves and their charges against all likely threats and engagements with more than just words.
Once we have solved the problem of further hijackings, we are faced with getting the ship back. Militarily, we could respond with a variety of different options, the strongest being a cruise missile strike on Iranian IRGC positions and units which captured the Stena Imperio. A lesser response would be capturing an Iranian ship in return. These actions may force the Iranians to give up the Imperio, but simply recapturing it may also be an option. We do not know for certain where she is. It could be in the main port of the Iranian Navy, or it could be anchored in port in one of the Iranian Gulf islands. Tantalisingly, some satellite pictures show a ship which seems to be the MV Stena Imperio off the coast of the Gulf Islands. In such a case, a recapture, while risky and probable to involve casualties to our special forces or the civilian crew, would be relatively easy to perform. It would be easy to protect via air support (Even after “Call me Dave” axed all our maritime patrol aircraft), with RAF Typhoons operating out of Bahrain or Qatar, where they already have bases. It would require a Prime Minister giving the order to shoot Iranians with certain Iranian ‘servicemen’ deaths among the IRGC terrorists/commandos.
These would be acts of war, but because of the Iranian action, we would be ‘responding’. It would be a firm and robust action, showing clear leadership and determination never to be swayed by piratical activity.
Lastly, the UK has an unusual option; to sink the Imperio. This, a geopolitical version of a toddlers tantrum, would clearly show the Iranians that if they have captured our boat, we will render it unusable and declare it will never be a bargaining chip. Again, its drawback is that it would possibly lead to casualties among the crew.
Punitive Military Force, such as cruise missile strikes, risk starting a war with Iran, but it also has a considerable chance of deterring the Iranians from any further action. It would also show to the world that it is still safe to register shipping in the UK, and stop the haemorrhage of ships leaving UK registers: Ships were returning to the UK register from foreign tax havens because the British flag offered greater safety and protection.
Economically, the main options are sanctions. The UK already has extensive sanctions against Iran, but there is always room for more. It is likely that the government will place further sanctions against Iran. Or would have placed extra sanctions against Iran had they continued any longer. We must wait to see what the new government will do and how it will react to the crisis. But it is likely the Foreign Office’s preference to resort only to economic sanctions: The ultimate sanction would be to ban any company which trades with or in Iran or any Iranian firm, from conducting business in the UK or with a British company globally. This is the cordon sanitaire of sanctions and likely to significantly hurt Iran, by cutting them off from companies around the world.
There is an elephant in the room, which makes this situation more serious than it is: Merely responding to this crisis ignores the goings on which have led to this crisis. The UK Merchant Marine, although the tenth largest is the world, has been shrinking, and many of its ships are arguably British. The MV Stena Imperio is an excellent example. It is owned by a Swedish company, which is fronted in Cyprus for tax evasion. It was built in China and crewed by Indians, Filipinos and Russians.
There is a interconnected network which has fallen apart; British steelworks, British shipbuilding, the Royal Navy, Defence Cuts, government misspending & waste, Royal Navy Morale and their recruitment crisis, patriotism, and political leadership. There are no silver bullets, but some problems are harder to solve than others, and below the surface there is more that can be readily seen. There is a lack of Royal Navy escorts (as noted by the Defence Secretary), and most damningly, a severe lack of any co-ordinated strategy: Global Britain has faced its first check, and under May, it is has failed hopelessly. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the National Security Strategy have published a report, effectively saying that the government has little if any strategy but what it has is mostly talk and little action.
If Global Britain is to be anything more than a simple buzzword, it will require a level of leadership, strategy, goals and a determination to reach there. This is why the crisis is much worse than just the Stena Imperio. China is watching to see if they can continue to ignore us in Hong Kong, as the people there rise up against the PRC’s dictatorial kleptocracy. The EU commission also, is unquestionably watching to see the condition of our resolve. Is it firm? Is Britain a global nation whose word carries weight, or are we just a paper tiger? What happens when we say that there will be serious consequences if our legal demands for restitution are continued to be ignored? How do we prevent this from happening again? Do we sit back and do nothing while the Iranian regime tortures its own people, exports terror globally, overruns and supersedes the governments of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and weekly threatens to wipe Israel off the map and genocide the Jews, followed by attacking the UK & US?
As noted above, the May Government has reacted to this crisis with the same level of vacillaty, inaction and words has it had brought to Brexit and all the other urgent issues brought to its attention. It had a last chance to repair its image and take a Thatcher-esque approach to a foreign act of aggression. Again, she missed the opportunity. Fortunately, the UK has a new Prime Minister, to whom this crisis will fall as his first Foreign Policy task.
We need a leader to get the Stena Imperio back, show the Iranians we mean business. We will not accept them overrunning the Middle East, developing a nuclear bomb and threatening genocide. We will not accept them holding a British-Iranian national (Nazarin Radcliffe) hostage. We need a leader to announce that Global Britain means we have eyes and a conscience, and that when we tell China to back off the Hong Kong protestors or there will be consequences, there will be consequences more than just words. We need a leader to cut through all the Civil Service Red Tape and work to get the most from our large spending budgets; both for the Irish border and the Royal Navy.
We need a Thatcher, a Churchill, a Pitt, and most certainly not a ‘Theresa in Trousers’. We must hope Mr Johnson is up to the task and wish him the very best as he takes the reins in this pivotal time.