Five armed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats attempted to seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, U.S. news channel CNN reported, with Iran denying the accusation.
CNN cited two U.S. officials as saying that the British Heritage tanker was sailing out of the Persian Gulf and was crossing into the Strait of Hormuz area when it was approached by the Revolutionary Guard boats.
The officials said the Iranians ordered the tanker to change course and stop in Iranian territorial waters.
The U.K.’s Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose, which was escorting the tanker, is equipped with 30mm guns specifically designed to drive off small boats.
The officials said its crew trained the deck guns on the Iranians and gave them a verbal warning to back away, which they subsequently did.
A U.S. aircraft flying overhead recorded the incident, CNN said.
British, Russian response
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the strait of Hormuz.”
According to the British government, the U.K. warship stationed in the Gulf was “forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away.”
“We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region,” the spokesman added.
Iran’s Revolution Guards denied the U.K. account Thursday, according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency.
“Over the last 24 hours there have been no encounters with foreign vessels, including British vessels,” said a statement by the guard.
“In the event that a command is received for the seizure of foreign vessels, the IRGC Navy’s fifth naval zone, in its geographical area of mission, is able to do so immediately, firmly, and promptly,” read the statement.
Following the incident, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called on the sides to ease tensions.
The incident follows a warning Wednesday by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the U.K. will face “repercussions” for seizing an Iranian oil tanker last week off the coast of Gibraltar.
The British government said the tanker was believed to be carrying 2 million barrels of crude oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Iran denounced the tanker’s seizure as “piracy” and summoned the British envoy in Tehran to protest the action, denying that the tanker was bound for Syria.
On Tuesday, Tehran vowed to respond to the seizure of the tanker “at an appropriate time and place.”
This May and June, six oil tankers were attacked near Iran’s southern coast, in incidents the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied any involvement.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Wednesday it wants to create an international military coalition to secure passage around the Persian Gulf and Yemen.