A British warship prevented an apparent attempt by five Iranian small boats to direct a British oil tanker toward Iranian waters on Wednesday, according to two U.S. officials.
The incident is the first provocative action since Iranian officials warned of consequences after the United Kingdom seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar that was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of international sanctions.
The United Kingdom-flagged oil tanker British Heritage was in the eastern Persian Gulf on its way toward the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday afternoon when it was approached by five small Iranian craft, said the two U.S. officials.
The Iranians radioed the British Heritage to change course and move toward Iranian territorial waters.
HMS Montrose, a British frigate, was 5 miles away monitoring the tanker's transit when the Iranian boats approached.
The British warship sped toward the tanker’s location and got in between the five Iranian boats and the British tanker, said the U.S. officials.
The crew of the Montrose radioed the Iranians to break off their contact, which they did. The Montrose then continued to escort the British Heritage on its route through the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. officials described the small Iranian craft as belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran's paramilitary force that routinely harasses shipping in the Persian Gulf area. The United States has also blamed the IRGC for being behind the mine attacks on several merchant ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May and June.
“We are aware of the reports of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy's FAC/FIAC harassment and attempts to interfere with the passage of the U.K.-flagged merchant vessel British Heritage today near the Strait of Hormuz," said Capt. Bill Urban, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson.
"We refer you the U.K. Ministry of Defense for further information on this. Threats to international freedom of navigation require an international solution. The world economy depends on the free flow of commerce, and it is incumbent on all nations to protect and preserve this lynchpin of global prosperity," Urban added.
In the wake of the attack, Iranian officials had used bellicose language hinting at retaliation that culminated on Wednesday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warning Britain there would be "consequences" for the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker.
On Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the U.S. and its allies were continuing discussions about putting together a maritime coalition to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf region from any Iranian threats.
One proposal calls for commercial ships to be escorted by their country's Navy, while the United States military would provide situational awareness and coordination for coalition ships.
There have been heightened tensions between the United States and Iran since early May when an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force were dispatched to the Middle East to counter new intelligence that suggested Iran and its affiliated groups were planning attacks against U.S. interests in the region.
Two weeks ago, the tensions almost resulted in U.S. military airstrikes ordered by President Donald Trump against Iranian missile batteries that had shot down a Global Hawk reconnaissance drone.
Trump canceled those airstrikes, saying the casualties they would have inflicted were not proportional to the shoot-down of the unarmed drone.