Britain has taken over command from the United States of a maritime security mission in the Gulf to protect global shipping from the threat of attack by Iran.
Royal Navy Commodore James Parkin took charge of the seven-nation coalition on Thursday from US Rear Admiral Alvin Holsey at a ceremony at a US naval base in Bahrain.
“I am energised,” the British officer told a hall of military personnel and diplomats. “I know how important it is that we get this right.”
He will oversee a team of warships and surveillance aircraft that are patrolling the Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz, at a time of heightened tensions with Tehran following the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian officer, in a US drone strike earlier this month.
The death prompted Iran to retaliate, launching a salvo of cruise missiles against two US bases in neighbouring Iraq, taking the two countries to the brink of war.
No American military personnel were killed in the attack but dozens suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Experts on Iran believe the regime will also use less direct methods to try to hurt the United States and its allies, like targeting tankers as they pass off Iran’s shores through the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman.
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Britain will now be at the forefront of international efforts to deter such a prospect.
Last summer, the region was plunged into a crisis following a series of suspected limpet mine attacks on tankers in the area.
The United States blamed Iran, though Tehran denied responsibility.
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The Iranian military then shot down a US unmanned aircraft as the US military ramped up its presence in the Gulf, including accelerating the deployment of an aircraft carrier.
At the time, Washington sought to galvanise an international coalition of navies to help it boost protection for all shipping passing through the Gulf.
However, the rallying cry initially received a lukewarm response. A majority of European navies was reluctant to become involved in a US-led mission because of concern it could be seen as tacit approval for the US’s hardline stance on Iran.
President Donald Trump withdrew his country from a major deal between Tehran and world powers, including Britain, France and Germany, aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
He reimposed sanctions on the regime as part of a campaign described as “maximum pressure”, which aims to force Iran back to the negotiating table.
That has not happened. Instead tensions between the two sides have rocketed to dangerous levels.
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Britain was drawn into the crisis after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, and its largely Indian crew.
They were held for two months in a tit-for-tat spat after Royal Marines helped capture an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, accused by the European Union and the United States of being loaded with oil bound for Syria in breach of an embargo.
The Iranian tanker Adrian Darya-1 – it was originally called the Grace One – was eventually released even though it subsequently travelled to Syria to offload its cargo. Weeks later, the Stena Impero was also freed.
Britain already had a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Montrose, based out of Bahrain that was helping to protect British-flagged ships. It temporarily bolstered this presence last August by deploying a second frigate and a destroyer, HMS Defender.
British flagged tankers were put on a heightened state of alert. They were advised to pass through the Strait of Hormuz in groups, accompanied by one of the Royal Navy warships – a situation that calmed in November.
Image: Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero off the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in July 2019
The killing of Major General Soleimani again ratcheted up concerns about shipping passing through the Strait of Hormuz – a vulnerable choke point that facilitates almost a fifth of the world’s oil.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, instructed HMS Defender and HMS Montrose to prepare to start accompanying British-flagged ships again if required.
The British ships have been operating in the Gulf alongside the US navy as part of the international maritime task force, which was established last summer.
It now comprises ships and aircraft from a total of seven nations, also including Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Albania.
Command of what is being called Coalition Task Force Sentinel will be rotated every few months between the members.
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Commodore Parkin and Rear Admiral Holsey said the core goal of the mission is “vigilance, surveillance, assurance”.
The American officer said the the task force had worked to share information quickly.
“Working together creates a safer environment for everyone,” he said as he handed over command to Commodore Parkin.
“As more nations join – and our doors are open – we will become stronger.”
Vice Admiral James Malloy, who commands the US Fifth Fleet in the region, said: “We can and we are deterring illegal and dangerous activities in these critical waters.”
The mission sees a number of large naval vessels such as frigates and destroyers – described as Sentinels – monitor critical choke points in international waters throughout the Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
Smaller patrol craft and corvettes patrol the transit lanes between them, supported by surveillance aircraft. The aim is to deter Iran from attempting to target ships.
Source : Sky News