WASHINGTON — Five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps boats were confronted and sent into retreat Wednesday after attempting to impede and possibly seize a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, Pentagon officials said.
The Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose was escorting the tanker from roughly five miles in the rear when the tanker was approached in the Strait of Hormuz by boats of the IRGC and ordered to change course and proceed to Iranian territorial waters, according to reports.
The British government said the Iranian vessels only turned away after receiving “verbal warnings” from the Montrose, according to its statement issued Thursday.
It said there were three Iranian ships.
“We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to deescalate the situation in the region,” the statement said.
The incident occurred one week after British Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker believed to be headed to bust sanctions in Syria as that tank passed by Gibraltar. Iran then threatened to retaliate.
Because of that threat, the commercial vessel British Heritage waited in port in the Persian Gulf until an escort was provided.
Iranian officials denied the incident as portrayed, according to news reports.
“Threats to international freedom of navigation require an international solution,” Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement. “The world economy depends on the free flow of commerce, and it is incumbent on all nations to protect and preserve this lynchpin of global prosperity.”
The Pentagon had a manned U.S. reconnaissance aircraft above the area at the time, officials said.
On Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon is taking the first steps to organize an international coalition to protect ships from threats from Iran in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. would provide intelligence, surveillance and other support to the escorts under the plan, he said.
Several oil tankers were attacked in waters near Iran’s southern coast in May and June. Washington blamed Iran for these attacks but Tehran has denied any role.
In June, Iran shot down a U.S. drone near the Strait of Hormuz. President Donald Trump approved retaliatory air strikes, then changed his mind and called them off.