Royal Navy plans to de­ploy marines to Gulf

Ten­sions at their high­est since Eight­ies war­ship con­flict as US points the fin­ger at Iran over at­tacks

The Sunday Telegraph - - Front Page - By Raf Sanchez MID­DLE EAST COR­RE­SPON­DENT and Roz­ina Sabur in Wash­ing­ton

THE Royal Navy is draw­ing up plans to de­ploy 20 marines to the Per­sian Gulf to pro­tect Bri­tish ships af­ter a series of Ira­nian at­tacks on oil tankers.

It is un­der­stood the plans were first drawn up weeks ago amid ris­ing ten­sions with Iran, but the Min­istry of De­fence mis­sion has not been for­mally an­nounced. White­hall’s Co­bra se­cu­rity com­mit­tee is ex­pected to meet this week to dis­cuss the es­ca­lat­ing sit­u­a­tion and pro­pos­als to dis­patch 20 Royal marines.

It comes as Iran sum­moned Bri­tain’s am­bas­sador in Tehran af­ter Jeremy Hunt, the For­eign Sec­re­tary, said it was “al­most cer­tainly” be­hind the at­tacks.

Jeremy Cor­byn had ear­lier ques­tioned whether there was cred­i­ble ev­i­dence Iran was re­spon­si­ble for this week’s at­tacks in the Strait of Hor­muz.

Mr Hunt called the com­ments “pa­thetic and pre­dictable”. “From Sal­is­bury to the Mid­dle East, why can he never bring him­self to back Bri­tish al­lies, Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence or Bri­tish in­ter­ests?” Mr Hunt said. Two se­nior US of­fi­cials said Wash­ing­ton is dis­cussing with its al­lies a range of op­tions on how to pro­tect in­ter­na­tional ship­ping.

The plans in­volve send­ing marines from 42 Com­mando based near Ply­mouth to form a rapid re­ac­tion force called the Spe­cial Pur­pose Task Group 19, ac­cord­ing to The Sun­day Times.

The MoD last night said: “This is a pre-planned train­ing de­ploy­ment and is in no way re­lated to the on­go­ing sit­u­a­tion in the Gulf of Oman.”

IRAN last night sum­moned Bri­tain’s am­bas­sador in Tehran af­ter Jeremy Hunt blamed the coun­try for an at­tack on two oil tankers in the Per­sian Gulf.

The For­eign Sec­re­tary has pointed the fin­ger firmly at Iran, say­ing it was “al­most cer­tainly” be­hind the at­tacks – one of the most ro­bust re­sponses to the cri­sis from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Mr Hunt was taken to task by Jeremy Cor­byn, the Labour leader, who ques­tioned whether there was cred­i­ble ev­i­dence that Iran was re­spon­si­ble for this week’s at­tacks, which took place in the Strait of Hor­muz.

The US re­leased a video which it said showed Ira­nian forces try­ing to hide ev­i­dence of at­tack­ing the tankers, and the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment said it was “al­most cer­tain” that Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard was re­spon­si­ble.

“With­out cred­i­ble ev­i­dence about the tanker at­tacks, the Gov­ern­ment’s rhetoric will only in­crease the threat of war,” Mr Cor­byn said.

Mr Hunt called the com­ments “pa­thetic and pre­dictable”. “From Sal­is­bury to the Mid­dle East, why can he never bring him­self to back Bri­tish al­lies, Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence or Bri­tish in­ter­ests?” Mr Hunt said.

Three other Tory lead­er­ship can­di­dates – Do­minic Raab, Michael Gove, and Sa­jid Javid – also crit­i­cised Mr Cor­byn’s com­ments. Mr Raab said he was al­low­ing “his anti-Amer­i­can prej­u­dice to skew his moral com­pass and po­lit­i­cal judg­ment”.

The re­sponse from Bri­tain’s al­lies has been more muted. Heiko Mass, the Ger­man for­eign min­is­ter, also said the grainy video re­leased by the US was “not enough” to prove Iran was be­hind the at­tack. The UN called for an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Shinzo Abe, the Ja­panese prime min­is­ter, con­demned the at­tack on a Ja­panese-op­er­ated ship “no mat­ter who acted”, but he urged “all re­lated coun­tries” to avoid an ac­ci­den­tal con­fronta­tion.

Mean­while Rus­sia warned against rush­ing to as­sign blame for the at­tacks and ac­cused the US of stok­ing ten­sions in the re­gion with its ac­cu­sa­tions against Iran.

Its for­eign min­istry said that the Amer­ica’s “Ira­nopho­bic” stance had “ar­ti­fi­cially” fu­elled ten­sions and urged all in­volved to show re­straint.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials “strongly con­demned” Mr Hunt’s com­ments dur­ing last night’s meet­ing with the Bri­tish am­bas­sador and de­manded an ex­pla­na­tion for why the UK was the only na­tion to echo US ac­cu­sa­tions, the coun­try’s news agency ISNA re­ported. The spate of at­tacks have raised global fears of a re­turn to the “Tanker Wars” of the Eight­ies, when US war­ships fought catand-mouse bat­tles with Ira­nian forces to pro­tect oil tankers.

Mean­while, Saudi Ara­bia, one of Iran’s main re­gional foes and a ma­jor US ally, said yes­ter­day that there must a be a “swift and de­ci­sive” re­sponse to the at­tacks.

US of­fi­cials said Ira­nian forces had at­tempted to shoot down an Amer­i­can drone in the Gulf of Oman shortly be­fore be­gin­ning their at­tack on two oil tankers on Thurs­day, ac­cord­ing to CNN. Has­san Rouhani, Iran’s pres­i­dent, re­peated his threat yes­ter­day to breach the 2015 nu­clear agree­ment by re­sum­ing en­rich­ment of the kind of high-grade ura­nium which could be used in a nu­clear weapon.

“Iran can­not stick to this agree­ment uni­lat­er­ally,” Mr Rouhani told Rus­sian, Chi­nese and other Asian lead­ers at a con­fer­ence in Ta­jik­istan.

Two se­nior US of­fi­cials said that the US is dis­cussing with its al­lies a va­ri­ety of op­tions on how to pro­tect in­ter­na­tional ship­ping. “You could see other pow­ers send­ing navy ships even­tu­ally. It is a slower process now as moves are ex­plored within the United Na­tions and to build a coali­tion,” one of the of­fi­cials said. Bri­tain has four Royal Navy mine­hunters, a Type-23 Frigate and a Royal Fleet Aux­il­iary lo­gis­tics ves­sel in Bahrain as part of a 33-na­tion Mar­itime Coali­tion Force.

Mil­i­tary sources said the Navy’s spe­cial task force will em­bark from the naval base in Bahrain on a Royal Fleet aux­il­iary ship to pro­tect navy ships as well as Bri­tish mer­chant ves­sels.

It is re­port­edly hoped that the de­ploy­ment of marines will en­hance the Navy’s abil­ity to de­tect the small boats Iran is ac­cused of us­ing to at­tack the tankers. But the MoD last night in­sisted that the de­ploy­ment is a pre-planned train­ing ex­er­cise drawn up sev­eral weeks ago.

‘You could see other pow­ers send­ing navy ships even­tu­ally. It is a slower process now as moves are ex­plored within the United Na­tions and to build a coali­tion’

Richard Ratcliffe at the Ira­nian em­bassy in Lon­don yes­ter­day, where he be­gan a hunger strike in sol­i­dar­ity with his wife Nazanin, who is be­ing held as a spy

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