TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Intercepted radio communications between a British warship and Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) showed that the British navy tried but failed to prevent the seizure of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, fueling a wave of recriminations in London on Sunday.
In the tape, obtained by the shipping consultancy Dryad Global and posted on its website, the voice of an Iranian with the IRGC is purportedly heard ordering the Stena Impero tanker to follow orders. "If you obey you will be safe,” the man allegedly said.
A British naval officer interrupts, telling the Stena Impero that it has to proceed through the waterway. The British officer then addresses the Iranian: "Please confirm that you are not intending” to board the MV Stena.
He was speaking from the British frigate HMS Montrose, one of two warships sent to the Persian Gulf to protect British shipping from Iranian pledges to seize a British tanker in retaliation for Britain’s detention of an Iranian tanker in the Mediterranean earlier this month.
IRGC spokesman Brig-Gen Ramezan Sharif said Tehran had seized the ship despite the "resistance and interference” of a British warship that had been escorting it.
In London, Britain’s defense minister defended the actions of his country’s navy, pushing aside a charge by a former admiral that the British-flagged oil tanker should have been better protected ahead of its interception on Friday.
Tobias Ellwood, the defense secretary, said the priority now must be for Britain to "de-escalate tensions” with Tehran.
"Our first and most important responsibility is to make sure that we get a solution to the issue to do with the current ship, make sure other British-flagged ships are safe to operate in these waters and then look at the wider picture,” he said on Sunday.
Asked by Sky News whether Britain had taken its "eye off the ball,” and failing to defend ships in crucial waterways, Ellwood replied: "No, not at all.”
On Saturday, the IRGC released footage showing its commandos in black ski masks and fatigues rappelling from a helicopter onto the British oil tanker seized in the Strait of Hormuz.
The video showed several small IRGC boats surrounding the larger Stena Impero tanker as it moved through the strait. Above, a military helicopter hovered before several men rappelled onto the ship.
Its release came hours after Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed that Iran was on a "dangerous path,” adding that a response would be "considered but robust”.
The circumstances of the tanker’s seizure have come as a reminder of how difficult it is to secure the safety of shipping in the Persian Gulf after the U.S. escalation of tensions.
A fifth of the world’s oil passes through the narrow, crowded waterway, but many countries, such as China, rely on the route for a far greater percentage of their energy needs.
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif warned Britain not to escalate the situation. In a posting on his Twitter account, he accused the U.S. national security adviser John Bolton of seeking to drag Britain "into a quagmire”.
The standoff comes as the British government and lawmakers are distracted with the finale of the leadership contest to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, a race between the current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
According to the polls, Johnson is expected to win and enter 10 Downing Street on Wednesday afternoon — with the ongoing crisis with Iran waiting on his desk.
In a column in the Observer newspaper, Allan West, a former first sea lord and chief of Naval staff, wrote that the British government’s warning that British-flagged vessels avoid the passage through the Persian Gulf was "not good enough”.
"Some powerful groups in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States want war and think a precision strike against key parts of Iran’s military capability would lead to regime change. They are wrong. It would lead to an open-ended war with catastrophic consequences across the region and the globe,” he added.
Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, near Gibraltar had prompted Iranian pledges to seize a British tanker in retaliation.
The Washington Post said Iran’s retaliation has thrust Britain into the heart of the ongoing dispute between Washington and Tehran over the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent imposition of harsh new sanctions on Iran’s economy.