The UK Royal Navy is ready to send additional warships through the sensitive waters of the Strait of Hormuz amidst Iranian threats to block the waterway in retaliation for EU sanctions, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has revealed.
Hammond added that the UK Ministry of Defence has prepared contingency plans under which additional aircraft and troops will be sent to the Gulf region if required. About 1,500 Royal Navy personnel are currently serving in the Indian Ocean on four minesweepers, two frigates, three support ships, a survey vessel and a hunter-killer submarine, not including the Response Force Task Group consisting of Royal Marines, helicopters and naval vessels that was set up last year.
Presently, HMS Daring is sailing toward Suez on a six-month mission to counter piracy and drug smuggling, while HMS Westminster will reach Hormuz by next week to fulfil a seven-month deployment to the Middle East and Indian Ocean. On 22 January 2012, around six warships, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, HMS Argyll and a French La Motte Picquet warship joined a US strike group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with up to 90 warplanes on board, and passed through the passage without incident.
Britain, France and the US retain a permanent military presence in the Gulf to contribute to the region's peace and security, but a joint passage through the Strait was intended to increase pressure on Iran as well as defend the right of free passage through international waters. Tensions continue mount at the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic shipping lane through which 35% of the world's tanker-borne oil exports pass, following an embargo on Iranian oil exports and a partial freeze of the Iranian Central Bank assets in the EU.
Additional sanctions on Iran are also in response to its continuing failure to fulfil international obligations towards its nuclear programme. The EU sanctions include a ban on new contracts for Iranian crude oil and petroleum products, while allowing the existing ones to run until July 2012.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague commented: "These (sanctions) are peaceful and legitimate measures. They are not about conflict. I hope Iran will come to its senses on this issue and agree to negotiate."