Tensions have been rising between Iran and the UK over the seizure of the merchant ship MV Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar by the Royal Marines on suspicion of her carrying oil in contravention of sanctions.
This action sparked a strong response by the Iranian regime, who in turn seized a UK flagged merchant vessel in the Strait of Hormuz in late July.
At present, the Royal Navy is engaged in escorting UK flagged merchant ships through the region, and the British Government has agreed to work with the US to help create an international force to help deliver maritime security in the region and reduce tensions.
With the UK increasing force levels in the region, and tensions increasing, how serious is the situation and what is the possible outcome?
The UK and Iran have a long history of tense relationships and challenging diplomatic stand offs. In Iran, the UK is seen as wily player and puppet master, pulling the strings behind diplomatic disputes and helping keep Iran down.
In the eyes of some Iranians, the US is merely a puppet of the UK, with the two nations working together to try and prevent Iran from occupying its rightful place as a regional power.
As odd as this attitude may seem, understanding it is essential to understanding why there is so much tension in the relationship.
Iranian memories are long, and they still recall the Anglo/American coup of 1953 as an example of British meddling.
More widely there are deeply held beliefs that the UK is intervening in Khuzestan province, on the border with Iraq, and source of much of Iran’s oil, to further its own ends.
Wider tensions, such as the ongoing issue of the return of over £400 million of Iranian money held by the UK Government since the Iranian Revolution that were intended to purchase tanks by the Shah of Iran, but which has been held ever since due to complex challenges around sanctions - this still remains an ongoing challenge.
When coupled with the parlous state that Iran finds itself in as a result of international sanctions over their aspirations to produce nuclear weapons, and it is easy to see that this is incident is the latest in a long line of difficulties in the bilateral relationship.
This poor relationship has manifested itself in several incidents in recent years that have stretched and tested relationships, almost to breaking point.
In 2004, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) seized a Royal Marine patrol and held them captive for several days, subjecting the personnel to mock executions and other acts.
In 2007, the IRGC also kidnapped a Royal Navy boarding party from HMS Cornwall who were conducting an inspection of fishing vessels in the Gulf. After holding them hostage for several days, they were returned to the UK amid growing tensions.
In the same time frame, while UK forces were operating in Iraq as part of Op Telic, it was Iranian provided IEDs and training to Shia militias that took a heavy toll on UK service personnel, with the Iranians seeking to fight a proxy war against the west through the Iraqis.
When coupled with wider incidents, such as the storming of the British Embassy compound in 2011, then it’s safe to assume that the relationship has been in a reasonably challenging position over the last few years.
But what do the latest seizures mean for the military situation in the region?
The UK has maintained a near permanent military presence in the Middle East region for decades, marked only by a temporary withdrawal in the 1970s.
Although the nature of the presence has changed over time, from garrisons in the 1960s through to short term deployments in the 1980s and 90s, the region has seen an unbroken military presence since at least 1980.
In recent years, this presence has become more formalised and permanently attributed to the region, rather than it being a series of operational tours to be met by different units on an ongoing basis.
The bulk of the UK commitment today is built around the Royal Navy, which has a small naval base in Bahrain (sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘HMS JUFAIR’) that houses a 1-star led force (the so-called UK Maritime Component Commander), responsible for the safe and effective operation of UK naval assets in the region.
The facility in Bahrain comprises workshops, accommodation and HQ areas, as well as berths for UK vessels alongside other allied ships. Several hundred UK military personnel are permanently based there.
The UK presence is built around a permanently based force of four Mine Warfare vessels (two Hunt class and two Sanddown class) that deploy to the region for three years at a time, but crews rotate through on four-month tours.
This force is intended to provide the ability to train regional navies in mine warfare, and provide the ability to clear mines, should the need arise in region.
There has been an MCMV force in the region for well over ten years now, and the ships operate extremely closely with their US Navy counterparts (there are four US MCMVs also based in Bahrain, alongside an airborne minesweeping capability using CH53 helicopters).
This link is particularly valued by the US Navy, whose presence is increasingly elderly and fragile, with their own Avenger class vessels approaching the point of obsolescence.
The RN Mine Warfare force plays a key role in ensuring that there is an in-theatre capability able to respond to any mine threat.
One of the real challenges of mine warfare is being able to find the mines, which can often lurk on the bottom of the ocean, hidden amongst all the detritus that has been left there, from shipwrecks to rubbish.
If a nation were to use mines, then knowing what to look for is critical – part of the role of the RN MCMV force is to have the expert knowledge of the local area to spot where mines may be hidden.
By maintaining this capability in the region, it is a vital means of being able to respond quickly should a crisis occur. It also helps ensure that the UK far better placed to be able to respond quickly, rather than trying to work out in a hurry where mines may or may not be.
One of the big limitations of any Mine Warfare vessel though is its endurance and ability to stay at sea for lengthy periods of time.
In Europe, where the RN vessels were originally intended to operate during the Cold War, this was less of an issue as there were plenty of military ports close to the likely operating areas.
By contrast the Gulf region is extremely large, and it is harder to find ports with the right support for the MCMV force.
To that end, some years ago the decision was taken to permanently base a ‘Bay’ class LSD(A) in the region to function as an HQ ship for the MCMV force.
The Bay class is one of the most versatile platforms in service today with the RN, and has been employed globally in a wide range of tasks, from hurricane relief in the West Indies to MCMV support vessel and, of course, acting as a core part of the UK amphibious landing force.
The role of the Bay class in the Gulf is to provide support to the MCMV force, such as engineering workshops, support to trials, accommodation services and hot showers for crew and generally act as a ‘mothership’ to the RN and USN vessels.
This is critical as it extends the ability of an MCMV to stay on task for a much longer period. The Bay can best be described as a ‘home away from home’ for the MCMV force and one that is critical to enable them to do their job properly.
While the MCMV force plays a vital role in supporting ongoing operations and contingency planning, it is just one part of the RN presence in the Gulf.
The RN maintains a frigate permanently based in the region, currently HMS Montrose is a general-purpose Type 23 Frigate in order to provide an escort to support wider defence engagement in the region.
The Type 23 was designed originally to focus as an anti-submarine frigate, although over the years it has evolved into two distinct sub variants – the ASW ‘towed array’ version, of which 8 are used to monitor submarine activity, and five ‘general purpose’ variants intended to carry out general patrol duties.
Armed with a 4.5” gun, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, small calibre weapons and stingray torpedo tubes plus either SeaCeptor or Seawolf anti-aircraft missiles and usually embarking a Lynx Wildcat helicopter, the Type 23 forms the backbone of the Royal Navy’s escort force.
These ships have deployed into the gulf region for decades, although until last year the UK policy was to maintain one or two ships in the wider region as part of OP KIPION, but rotating through on six-nine month deployments, which would include not only time in the Gulf, but also more widely in the Med and Asia Pacific region too.
This meant that while there was a reasonably continuous presence in the region, it was entirely possible for there to not be a frigate or destroyer based in the Gulf itself.
For example, if a ship was sent to conduct operations in the Red Sea, or counter piracy duties off the coast of Africa, then it may be some considerable sailing time (potentially a week or more) from the Gulf itself.
This coupled with the reality that deploying ships needed to take mid tour leave (a mandatory four-week stand down in the middle of a nine-month deployment), meant that deploying vessels were perhaps not as frequently in the area and available to go sea as needed.
To try and address this, the decision was taken to permanently base a Type 23 frigate in the region using the newly constructed support facilities in Bahrain.
In 2018, the frigate HMS Montrose arrived to begin a three-year tour in the region, relying on regular crew rotations to ensure that the Royal Navy regularly has a major escort available for operations in the region.
Additionally, the RN has tried to routinely send a second escort ship into the Gulf to cover periods when the Montrose is at lower readiness due to maintenance or crew changes.
To support the surface force, the RN has also traditionally maintained an RFA tanker and/or stores ship to keep both RN and allied ships supplied with fuel, food and other stores and able to stay at sea for longer.
Due to wider changes in the RFA fleet, this role has been gapped for some time, but the UK has now confirmed that one of the new ‘Tide’ class tankers will shortly be deploying to the Gulf to fill this critical role.
This will play a key part in helping sustain the reach of vessels, and supporting wider maritime operations in the region.
The overall force then available to the UK is considerable and sits second only to the US Navy in terms of foreign naval forces based in the region.
This force plays a vital role in supporting both UK interests and those of allies in the region against regional security threats.
This threat was most clearly demonstrated recently with the rise in tensions between the UK and Iran over the threat to UK flagged merchant shipping in the Gulf. With tensions rising, the Iranian regime seemed to pose a considerable paper threat to UK.
The Iranian threat is complex and not limited to just the maritime environment. Their armed forces comprise two key groups. The so-called Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) which functions as a parallel military organisation to safeguard the Iranian regime.
Both forces have an externally facing role to defend Iranian territory, and varying levels of equipment and manpower.
In broad terms, the regular armed forces operate with a wide variety of equipment, including much of the kit sourced from the US and West during the 1970s under the Shah of Iran.
For example, Iran continues to use the F14 Tomcat, F4 Phantom, P3 Orion and C130 Hercules fleets as part of its air force.
The Army operates not only US vehicles including the M113 APc and M109 howitzer, but also British vehicles including the Chieftain main battle tank and Scorpion reconnaissance vehicle. These are supported by an eclectic collection of Russian and also domestically designed vehicles too.
In the maritime domain the Iranian navy comprises a collection of older surface escorts, many of which are nearly 50 years old – like the ‘Alvand’ Class, which are based on a British Vosper Thorneycroft design.
The key offensive arm of the Iranian Navy is their submarine force, operating three ‘Kilo’ class diesel submarines, originally built in Russia, and a variety of smaller domestically designed ‘mini submarines’.
There are a wide range of small patrol craft, carrying light weapons, supported by a limited amphibious force. The largest vessel in the fleet is the British built fleet replenishment tanker ‘Kharg’, a 33,000 tonne ‘O’ class tanker, originally designed in the 1960s.
The IRGCN operates a range of small craft, mostly used for patrol purposes, and no ocean going or other major surface vessels. The force is optimised for working mostly in littoral space (e.g. near the coast) rather than further afield.
Supporting this extensive range of vessels is an impressive collection of land based anti-ship missiles, which are intended to target hostile warships.
Launched from a range of mobile sites, these could potentially pose a real challenge to shipping if fired indiscriminately.
The Iranians also make extensive use of mines and irregular warfare tactics. For example, they hold large stocks of sea mines, which are intended to explode when a ship hits, or sails near them (depending on the type of mine used).
These mines can pose a significant hazard to merchant shipping if not cleared and could potentially threaten the movement of warships due to the significant damage they are capable of inflicting.
The key strategic advantage posed by Iran at present is that of geography and time. While it is extremely unlikely that the current tense situation is likely to lead to open conflict, their presence in the Strait of Hormuz makes it significantly easier for them to control a situation and escalate/de-escalate as they judge it.
There are several Iranian military facilities near the Strait, and due to the high speed of many of their fast patrol craft, and the comparative ease by which these vessels can sail in a hurry (e.g. not needing tugs or waiting for tides) it is easy for Iranian forces to quickly sortie if desired.
This means that Iranian naval forces possess the advantage of time, for it can quickly move to threaten passing merchant vessels, or withdraw to safety if desired.
As was seen with the seizure of the MV Stena Impero, the UK flagged tanker, although HMS Montrose was under an hours sailing away (in global terms this is practically next to each other), it still arrived too late to prevent the boarding.
Forces facing off against Iranian actors need to be wary of their ability to sortie in a hurry, and prepared to respond quickly when their forces can literally ‘swarm’ out of a base and threaten to overwhelm the ability of a warship to respond.
This also highlights the second Iranian advantage, their continued willingness to flout international law in flagrant violation of all accepted norms of behaviour.
Unlike the UK, where tightly scripted and well understood rules of engagement prohibit personnel acting in a manner where military personnel seize ships at random, the Iranians show no such compunction.
In the last few months Iran has not only seized a UK tanker, but also been attributed as the source of a series of limpet mine attacks on tankers off the coast of the UAE – something that had potential to cause a serious environmental disaster.
The willingness of the Iranian regime to support this activity, and a chain of command eager to carry out this work makes it hard to engage with Iran as a rational actor.
The challenge for the UK is how to respond when dealing with a nation willing to rapidly escalate and exploit a situation in a manner that may prove inflammatory.
On the face of it the UK response seems to have been well judged – dispatching an escort ship (HMS Montrose), and then reinforcing it with HMS Duncan to provide close support to UK merchant ships seems a good compromise to protect UK interests without risking escalation.
The challenge for the crews when navigating the Strait of Hormuz is exercising ‘courageous restraint’ and being able to handle the very challenging activity of Iranian units, many of whom operate in an unprofessional and at times dangerous manner.
For the young crews onboard, the decision on whether to open fire or not is a serious one that could have major consequences. The Iranians are aware of this and are seemingly engaged in a game of ‘cat and mouse’ as they try to put the UK under pressure and see what they can get away with.
Moves by the US to work with allies, including the UK to co-ordinate more escorting of ships through the region will make a significant impact in resolving this.
With more escort ships available to monitor the situation, the ability of the Iranians to exploit gaps will reduce and the ability of allies to prevent further seizures increases.
The Strait of Hormuz will remain a challenging operating environment though for Western warships. Sailing in restricted waters with the Iranians willing to act in a manner that flouts international laws, and facing the possibility of being actively targeted by a variety of means (swarm attacks, land based missiles and mines) while having relatively little room to manoeuvre and fight, the Strait is not somewhere that will ever be a comfortable place to operate.
But, the solution to the current diplomatic tensions is not to quickly escalate to the point where UK vessels are opening fire on Iranian units. That way lies a war that no one wants.
The best and most pragmatic outcome to this situation involves patient diplomacy and solutions that save face and avoid conflict if possible. Ideally then the current tensions will soon fade into the background and merchant ships will be able to sail these waters again without incident.
The UK is taking precautions though to ensure a longer-term presence is available to bolster escorting efforts. On Mon 12 August, HMS Kent sailed to the Middle East to replace HMS Duncan, ensuring that for the foreseeable future there will be at least two Royal Navy escorts in the Gulf to keep UK shipping safe.
This will soon be bolstered by an additional RFA tanker too.
In the medium term the decision by the UK to invest in an enhanced presence in Bahrain will seem like a very sensible move.
By providing proper basing facilities and keeping a large force of vessels permanently based in the region, the Royal Navy is extremely well placed to look after and protect Britain’s interests in the Gulf for the long term.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.