HMS Montrose, a Type 23 frigate, was escorting a British-flagged tanker, British Heritage, through the Gulf of Aden when three, apparently armed, Iranian gunboats ordered the tanker to stop and prepare to sail into Iranian territorial waters.
Having warned the gunboats to stand off, and reinforced the message by training its guns onto the three vessels, HMS Montrose made it clear that it was ready to take whatever action was necessary to protect the tanker. The gunboats then moved away.
According the UK MOD:
“Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz. HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and issue verbal warnings to the Iranian vessels, which then turned away. We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.”
For its part, the Iranians have claimed that the incident had nothing to do with them and implied that the RN’s response to the presence of the three boats was proof that the UK is “so hopeless that when one of your tankers wants to move in the region, you have to bring your frigates because you are scared. Then why do you commit such acts (arresting the Iranian tanker off Gibralter)? You should instead allow navigation to be safe.”
The incident did not come as a total surprise to observers and indeed a suspicion that the Iranian navy might attempt something like this was the reason the Montrose was close to the British Heritage in the first place. What was somewhat curious, however, was that they chose to “try it on” in spite of the frigate’s presence.
Some have suggested that the Iranians were not actually intending to board on this occasion. Instead, they wanted to make the point that they are not afraid of the presence of warships and also to send a message that the UK is going to have to escort each and every British-flagged vessel transiting the Gulf in future.
Various statements from Iran have made it clear that they view Britain as a puppet of the US, which remains the object of special hatred. However, they are now also referring to the UK as an “enemy”, a somewhat sad state of affairs when the UK is part of the team of European nations trying to save the Iranian nuclear deal after the US walked away from it.