As UK ministers ponder how best to respond to Iran’s illegal seizure of a British oil tanker, they will discover that, thanks to a decade of dramatic defence cuts, their options are severely limited.
Indeed, the fact that the Royal Navy currently has so few combat ships at its disposal — just 19 — no doubt explains why Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was allowed to seize the British-registered oil tanker Stena Impero in the first place.
In order to provide effective protection for the scores of British ships that pass through the Strait of Hormuz every week, the Navy would need to have several ships available.
At present the Navy has a single Type 23 frigate, the 4,900-ton HMS Montrose, operating in the area, while two other warships, the 8,000-ton Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan and another Type 23 frigate, HMS Kent, are due to arrive in the coming weeks.
But the fact that the government, in spite of the increasingly bellicose noises emanating from Tehran, has been so slow to act has meant that it has been left to a single frigate to protect all the British shipping operating in the region.
Indeed, it emerged that HMS Montrose tried to intervene to prevent the Iranians from seizing the tanker, but arrived an hour too late, by which time the tanker had already been escorted into Iranian waters.
Now ministers who have been responsible for overseeing dramatic cuts to the strength and operational effectiveness of Britain’s Armed Forces must face the consequences of their actions as they consider how to respond to the deepening crisis.
Whoever emerges as Britain’s next prime minister needs to adopt a far more robust attitude in his dealings with Tehran
As Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, the former chief of the defence staff under David Cameron, remarked on the BBC’s Today programme, the government’s defence cuts were now “coming home to roost”, so that the options are extremely limited.
It is highly unlikely, given the political vacuum at the heart of Whitehall as Theresa May prepares to stand down as prime minister this week, that there will be any appetite for launching a daring, special forces-type operation to free the ship from captivity in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The West does not have a happy history of military rescue missions in Iran, as demonstrated by America’s ill-fated hostage rescue mission in 1980, which ended with the loss of two aircraft and the deaths of eight US service personnel.
The most likely course of action will be to improve the protection available to shipping in the Gulf, and for that Britain will need the support of its allies, especially the US.
The fact that ministers will now be giving urgent consideration to protecting British shipping in the Gulf inevitably raises questions about why, given the dire warnings Iran’s leaders have made about targeting British vessels, they have been wary of supporting US President Donald Trump’s call for international action to put such protection measures in place.
The US has called on allies to join Operation Sentinel, its multinational maritime support effort, following clashes between Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and the US, including the shooting down last month of a US navy drone by an Iranian missile over the Strait of Hormuz.
In London, ministers have been reluctant to support the American initiative for fear of inflicting further damage to the controversial nuclear deal with Tehran after Trump ordered Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement last year.
Britain, in common with other signatories, Germany and France, has continued to stick with the deal in the hope that it would persuade Tehran to adopt a more constructive relationship with the outside world.
Instead the Iranians have simply intensified their aggressive attitude, concentrating their attention on British interests in the Gulf after Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker suspected of carrying oil to Syria off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4.
Moreover, after Revolutionary Guard speedboats attempted to intercept a BP-operated oil tanker sailing through the Strait of Hormuz, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a specific warning vowing to retaliate for the British action, claiming the seizure of the Iranian ship was an “act of piracy”.
Senior ministers such as Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, the defence secretary, must now explain why they were so slow to respond to the threat.
For the crisis facing the current government is entirely of its own making, and whoever emerges as Britain’s next prime minister needs to adopt a far more robust attitude in his dealings with Tehran if similar outrages are to be avoided.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.