Two big security firms, Ambrey and Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST), have removed British guards from vessels in the Persian Gulf, citing concerns that Iranian authorities could capture UK nationals, The Financial Times reported.
"We have instigated a policy of no UK guards in the Gulf. [We] are advising our clients the same", John Thompson, co-founder of Ambrey, based in Herefordshire, UK, confirmed.
MAST's Director Maritime Ben Stewart also told the media outlet that the firm has been "recommending not using UK unarmed guards because of that [risk]".
The move apparently comes in response to the seizure of the Stena Impero, a UK-flagged oil tanker, by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Persian Gulf three weeks ago. According to Tehran, the ship violated maritime rules, ignored warnings from the military, switched off its positioning device, and collided with an Iranian fishing boat.
As the incident came shortly after the Iranian-flagged Grace-1 oil supertanker was detained by Gibraltar's authorities, assisted by UK Royal Marines, over a purported crude oil delivery to Syria in violation of EU sanctions, Tehran felt compelled to clarify that the British tanker's seizure was not a retaliatory move. The Iranian side has also denied the claims laid out by London.
According to The Financial Times, over the past few years, the maritime security industry has turned to cheaper guards from Eastern Europe and Asia, even though the sector used to be dominated by ex-members of elite British forces, including the Royal Marines.
While Stena Bulk, the Sweden-based owner of the Stena Impero, has revealed that there are no British nationals among the seized tanker's crew, which includes Indian, Russian, Filipino, and Latvian members, unnamed sources told the media outlet that there are concerns that Iran could be trying to target UK citizens.
"Everyone in the UK shipping industry seems to believe the Iranians want British crew. That's the impression we have, given the events that have happened and the feedback from people on board", one source claimed.
The move by Ambrey and MAST follows an announcement by Anglo-Dutch gas and oil behemoth Royal Dutch Shell that it had stopped sending British-flagged tankers through the Strait of Hormuz following the vessel's seizure. British conglomerate BP has ceased the transit of its oil tankers through the strategic waterway as well.
US, UK Move to Create Anti-Iran Mission in the Gulf
The developments come amid greater efforts by the United States to set up an international maritime force to police the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of a spate of "attacks" on oil tankers in the region that was unfoundedly blamed on Tehran. The United Kingdom has expressed its readiness to establish a European-led mission as well, aside from signing up for the US-proposed plan.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already hailed the UK's support for Washington's initiative as a "victory for meaningful, effective multilateralism" and praised his British counterpart for "understanding the importance of protecting international shipping from unprovoked attacks".
The United States had previously asked Germany, France, the UK, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Belgium, and Norway, among other countries, to join its anti-Iran coalition, dubbed Operation Sentinel. Washington's allies and partners have been reluctant to take part in the proposed mission so far, which caused Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to send a jab at the US by claiming that "countries that are its friends are too ashamed of being in a coalition" with the United States.