Persian Gulf Tensions

In this image from file video provided by UK Ministry of Defence, British navy vessel HMS Montrose escorts another ship during a mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria at sea off coast of Cyprus in February 2014. The British Navy said it intercepted an attempt on Thursday, July 11, 2019, by three Iranian paramilitary vessels to impede the passage of a British commercial vessel just days after Iran’s president warned of repercussions for the seizure of its own supertanker. A U.K. government statement said Iranian vessels only turned away after receiving “verbal warnings” from the HMS Montrose accompanying the commercial ship through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. (UK Ministry of Defence via AP)

(CNN) -- The UK has raised the security level for British ships in the Gulf to the highest state of alert, a British official confirmed to CNN on Friday, as tensions with Iran continue to grow.

The decision to raise the threat level to 3, or 'critical,' was made on Tuesday, according to UK media reports, one day before Iranian ships attempted to seize a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

A level 3 security level is put in place when and where the risk of an attack on a UK ship is assessed to be critical, according to International Ship and Port Facility (ISPS) security code.

The UK official told CNN that media reports about the threat level being raised to its highest level for ships in the Middle East were accurate.

CNN understands that British officials considered a variety of sources -- including open source information, intelligence, previous behavior, recent events and international partnerships -- before making the decision

"Information from all of those sources enables Her Majesty's Government to make rounded decisions that protect UK and/or allies interests," a UK security source told CNN.

The decision comes as Iran has threatened to retaliate against the UK after British commandos seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar last week. The UK said the tanker was seized because it was in violation of EU sanctions against shipping oil to a port in Syria, which is where the UK said the Iranian tanker was heading. Iran has denied the tanker was going to Syria.

A day after the threat level was reportedly raised, armed Iranian boats unsuccessfully tried to intercept a British oil tanker as it was crossing into the Strait of Hormuz. A Royal Navy warship that was escorting the tanker then leveled deck guns at the Iranian vessels, turning them away.

The director of policy at the UK Chamber of Shipping, David Balston, confirmed to CNN that the British Department for Transport (DfT) issued the warning to UK-flagged vessels "on a one to one basis" several days ago.

The increased threat level requires ships to take extra security precautions, which are confidential, Balston said, adding that the measures would include advice about which routes are navigated.

The one-to-one communications take place because the DfT, often working with the Chamber of Shipping, issues threat warnings to companies and vessels which are potentially vulnerable, rather than sending out a blanket order to the entire industry. Threat levels are also issued by individual nations to the ships of those nations only, Balston said.

A DfT spokesperson told CNN in a statement: "The Department for Transport, as competent authority, regularly provides security advice to UK and Red Ensign Group Shipping on how they should operate in areas of high risk."

CNN has also reached out to the UK Ministry of Defense for comment.

Laboratory testing has confirmed Grace 1, the Iranian tanker seized by the British Navy on July 4, was carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil, Gibraltar's Chief Minister said Friday.

"We will not allow Gibraltar to be used or to be knowingly or unknowingly complicit in the breach of EU or other international sanctions or for any of the matters which our laws prohibit," said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in Parliament.

The ship's captain and chief officer were arrested Thursday on suspicion of breaching EU sanctions relating to Syria, according to a statement from the Gibraltar Police.

However Iran has demanded the ship's immediate release, insisting the ship was not bound for Syria and was not breaching EU sanctions.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi warned the UK not to "enter into a dangerous game under the influence of the Americans with no end in sight" in a Friday interview with state-run IRNA, according to Iranian state-funded Press TV.

Mousavi said there are no ports big enough to accommodate the super tanker in Syria.


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