A European task force is being prepared to protect ships off the coast of Iran, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has revealed.
Vessels from the navies of Britain’s allies are expected to join a maritime protection fleet after the hijacking of a UK-flagged oil tanker, MPs were told.
The storming of the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian commandos was “an act of state piracy” and “flagrant breach of the principle of free navigation”.
He updated Parliament after images emerged of the 23 crew on the 30,000-tonne tanker seized on Friday.
They include Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationals.
Images showed chefs preparing meals on board and others being briefed by an Iranian official.
Officers were seen checking radar systems.
During one “meeting” a uniformed crew member tells others: “Don’t look at the camera.”
Mr Hunt was speaking after a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency committee.
Those crisis talks, with armed forces chiefs, spy masters and senior ministers, led to plans for the joint naval task force.
“We will seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of crew and cargo in this vital region,” Mr Hunt told the Commons.
“It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary.
“If Iran continues on this dangerous path, they must accept the price will be a larger Western military presence along their coastline – not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle which Britain and its allies will always defend.”
He has spoken with counter-parts from the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Oman and Denmark.
Revealing one option on tackling the threat, Mr Hunt said ministers had considered deploying troops on to commercial vessels.
But he added: “We think it would make those ships a target and we would have the risk of Royal Marines being taken hostage, which would create an even greater crisis.”
Operators of commercial vessels will receive fresh advice that could include sailing in convoy.
A fifth of the world’s oil supply and a quarter of its liquefied natural gas requirements pass through the Strait, which narrows to 21 miles wide.
Only one Royal Navy warship, the Type 23, Duke-class frigate Montrose, is on duty in the Gulf.
A Type 45, Daring-class destroyer, Duncan, will arrive on July 29. A second frigate, Kent, is also being deployed.
Shadow Foreign Minister Fabian Hamilton said that the Impero had been left “hopelessly unprotected” as she sailed in the volatile region.
Tensions had been mounting after the detention of the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar on July 4, he said.
Royal Marines had stormed the vessel, which was suspected of being bound for Syria in breach of EU sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Referring to the lack of protection Mr Hunt, whose father Sir Nicholas was an Admiral, admitted Britain’s fleet had become “too small”.
He told MPs: “I hope whoever the next Prime Minister is will reflect carefully on what we can do to bolster our great Royal Navy.”
Yet Mr Hunt was part of the government that agreed to slash the military in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Campaigners last night stepped up calls for more ships to be built.
The ageing Type 23, Duke-class frigates will be replaced by eight Type 26 City-class, global combat ships, and five Type 31e light frigates.
Former Commander of UK Maritime Forces, Rear Admiral Alex Burton, said the size of the fleet limited Britain’s ability to act.
He said: “There is no doubt the size of the Navy since 2005 –reduced from 31 frigates and destroyers to 19 – has had an impact on our ability to protect our interests around the globe.”
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