Britain ready for military intervention to keep Gulf open

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, as Tehran insisted a European Union ban on the purchase of its oil would have little sting.

Two British and French warships and the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln had entered the Gulf on Sunday to show Iran they would not tolerate any interference with global shipping, said Philip Hammond.

Iranian leaders have repeated long-standing threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, which handles a fifth of the world’s oil, after the EU imposed the embargo on Monday as part of sanctions to pressure Tehran into resuming talks on the country’s nuclear programme.

Iran has summoned the Danish ambassador to Tehran 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 US 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.

“The oil embargo will lead to higher prices. 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.

The three warships that entered the gulf on Sunday sent “a clear signal about the resolve of the international community to defend the right of free passage through international waters”, Hammond said.

Britain’s defence ministry said it had about 1,500 navy personnel in the Middle East and Indian Ocean.

In Paris, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said the French warship, which specialises in countering submarine attacks, has since separated from the British and US vessels, but remains on a “presence mission” in the gulf.

France does not 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.

The US and allies have warned they would take swift action against any Iranian moves to choke off the 50km-wide strait.

Though Hammond did not specify what potential reinforcements Britain could send, Britain 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 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.

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