WASHINGTON — Iran seized two British registered tankers traversing the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend, adding new pressure on Europe and the U.S. on how to deal with Tehran’s threats on the sea and in nuclear enrichment.
The ship seizures were followed Monday morning by Iran’s announcement that it had arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on the country’s nuclear and military sites, and that some have already been sentenced to death, according to news reports.
“The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centers in the economic, nuclear, infrastructural, military and cyber areas…where they collected classified information,” said a ministry statement read on state television, according to news reports.
There were mixed reports as to when the arrests occurred and sentences delivered.
The announcement on the alleged spies came in the crescendo of two British-registered ships being seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on Friday. The Iranians used small fast boats and armed larger vessels in the seizures; in at least one effort, commandos dropped by helicopter — reminiscent of how Britain captured an Iranian tanker carrying oil apparently bound fr Syria in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
Those seizures came one day after the U.S. downed an Iranian drone using new technology added this year to naval defenses, called the Marine Air Defense Integrated System. Over the weekend Iran repeated claims the U.S. downed its own drone.
The escalation comes as the United Kingdom is struggling to shift political leadership this week from outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May to Boris Johnson.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it launched a gunboat and helicopter raid on one tanker, the Stena Impero which is registered in the U.K, claiming it had turned off its tracker and ignored warnings, according to news reports.
Another vessel, the Mesdar also was intercepted and surrounded by 10 speedboats then forced towards Iranian territory in what appeared to be a pre-planned dual strike, according to news reports.
A U.K. ship, the HMS Montrose, was dispatched to help the Stena Impero when it was in Omani waters but arrived 10 minutes after the tanker had entered the Strait of Hormuz, London said in a statement.
The HMS Montrose is the same vessel that intercepted Iranian patrol boats two weeks ago as they surrounded the UK-flagged tanker British Heritage, and tried to direct it into Iranian waters.
Pentagon officials had no comment on the latest seizures.
The seizures may play into the side of Washington, pushing European nations closer toward participating in a Pentagon plan to escort vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.
On Friday night, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced Operation Sentinel, what it called in a release a “ multinational maritime effort … to increase surveillance of and security in key waterways in the Middle East to ensure freedom of navigation in light of recent events in the Arabian Gulf region.”
Also late Friday, CENTCOM said the Pentagon has increased air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz and boosted contact with U.S. ships operating in the area.