The Royal Navy does not have enough warships to match UK ambitions, a Defence Minister has admitted, as a dramatic recording of a high-seas confrontation between a British frigate and Iranian forces emerged.
Prime Minister Theresa May will host the Government’s emergencies committee Cobra on Monday, amid the deepening crisis over a UK-flagged oil tanker hijacked in the Gulf.
Armed forces chiefs, spy masters and top ministers are expected to attend.
Defence Minister and former Army officer Tobias Ellwood lashed out at the strength of the fleet, which includes just 13 frigates and six destroyers, amid the deepening crisis over a UK-flagged oil tanker seized in the Gulf by the Revolutionary Guard.
Radio exchanges between the frigate HMS Montrose and an Iranian vessel reveal Iranians claiming they want to inspect the Stena Impero for security reasons.
In the recording the Iranian vessel can heard be heard telling a ship – thought to be the tanker – to change its course, saying: “If you obey you will be safe.”
Montrose then identifies itself in the recording, obtained by British maritime security firm Dryad Global.
It tells the Stena Impero: “As you are conducting transit passage in a recognised international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered.”
The Stena Impero was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping route in the Gulf, on Friday.
Tehran said the vessel was “violating international maritime rules”.
Defence Minister Mr Ellwood warned: “If we want to continue playing a role on the international stage – bearing in mind that threats are changing – all happening just beneath the threshold of all-out war, then we must invest more in our defence, including our Royal Navy.
Our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests across the globe if that’s our future intentions and that’s something the next Prime Minister will need to recognise.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will update MPs on the crisis later on Monday.
Ellwood’s warning comes as retired top brass lined up to demand more funds for the Senior Service.
Just one warship, the ageing Type 23, Duke-class frigate HMS Montrose, is on duty in the Gulf.
A second frigate, HMS Kent, and a Type 45, Daring-class destroyer, HMS Duncan, are steaming towards the region to beef up forces.
Iran linked the seizure of the Impero with Britain’s role in detaining the Grace 1, which was carrying Iranian oil.
A spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council said: “The rule of reciprocal action is well known in international law.”
Iran’s ambassador to London Hamid Baeidinejad warned the UK against escalating tensions in the area.
Some 17.4 million barrels of oil – nearly a fifth of the world’s oil supply – pass through the Strait every day.
He tweeted: “This is quite dangerous and unwise at a sensitive time in the region. Iran is firm and ready for different scenarios.”
Iran has come under mounting pressure since the US abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal to block Tehran building an atomic bomb.
Donald Trump reimposed tough sanctions on the regime, which he hopes will force the Iranians to obey the pact by crippling its economy.
Iran stands accused of violating the terms of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Britain is also locked in a diplomatic row with Tehran over British-Iranian national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
She was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport while travelling with her young daughter in April 2016 and sentenced to five years in jail after being accused of spying – a charge she vehemently denies.
Chancellor Philip Hammond was forced to deny the Government had “taken its eye off the ball” over Iran.
He said: “We’ve been very much engaged with both the Americans and our European partners in the response to Iran’s increasing defiance of the JCPOA over the last few months.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to update MPs on the crisis and could unveil fresh UK sanctions against Iran.
But Mr Hammond said: “We’ve already got a wide raft of sanctions against Iran, particularly financial sanctions, so it’s not clear that there are immediate things we can do but we are of course looking at all the options.”
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon claimed the situation in Iran could be worse than the war in Iraq.
“That should really scare everybody,” he said. “We need sensible negotiations. We’ve got a really important part to play diplomatically in this. We can use our negotiating weight.
“I think that our Government has international respect and this country has international respect in a way that Donald Trump doesn’t.
“I think we need to use that for the purposes of conflict resolution and for the purposes of making sure this doesn’t escalate out of control.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The Royal Navy plays a pivotal role in maintaining freedom of navigation around the world.
“In recent weeks, our presence in the Gulf has deterred attacks and protected a significant number of merchant ships as they pass through the Straits, ensuring the free flow of trade.
“We will continue to work with our partners and allies to maintain this truly global presence, while heavily investing in new capabilities such as our two new aircraft carriers and Dreadnought submarine programme.”
Meanwhile a furious row broke out after a former Tory leader claimed Britain turned down an American offer to send warships to escort commercial vessels through the Gulf.
Ex-Cabinet Minister Iain Duncan Smith, a former Scots Guards officer, tore into the Government’s record in the run-up to the seizure of the Stena Impero, which has triggered a fresh crisis with Iran.
He told the BBC: “I understand … from reasonable sources that Washington had offered the UK Government – even in the event that they haven’t quite agreed an allied position to this – to use US assets to support British shipping and they were not taken up at the point.”
But in an unusually strong statement, a Government spokesman said: “This is completely untrue.
“We have extensive, on-going cooperation with the US about maritime security in the Gulf, and have had for years.
“We always keep the situation in the Gulf under review and discussions are underway with the US and other partners about how best to enhance protection for our shipping given the increased threat.”
The Royal Navy has shrunk from over the past three decades as Britain scaled back its Fleet.
1982: Four aircraft carriers, 13 destroyers, and 47 frigates
2008: Two aircraft carriers, eight destroyers, 17 frigates
2019: one aircraft carrier, which will not have any planes until 2021, six aircraft carriers and 13 frigates