Canadian navy not asked to join British coalition to protect Strait of Hormuz
Last Friday Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero as it was transiting the narrow and strategically vital international waterway between Oman and Iran
OTTAWA—Canada has no plans to contribute a ship to Britain’s nascent navy coalition to defend international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, where its tense dispute with Iran is unfolding.
But Britain is seeking Canada’s vocal support for the deal Iran reached with other western powers to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, The Canadian Press has learned.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement it forged with its fellow United Nations Security Council members—Britain, France, China and Russia—as well as Germany is widely viewed as the spark for renewed tensions between Iran and the West.
Those tensions further escalated last Friday when Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero as it was transiting the narrow and strategically vital international waterway between Oman and Iran through which one-fifth of the world’s oil is shipped.
That followed the British Royal Navy’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar earlier this month on the suspicion it was violating sanctions against Syria.
The stand-off is a major international crisis for Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The government of his predecessor, Theresa May, announced plans in her final days to cobble together a “Europe-led” force to protect international shipping.
“At this point we have not received any specific request from Britain regarding this issue,” said Todd Lane, a spokesman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Ex-Canadian navy commanders who have served in the region, as well as Middle East analysts, say that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
They say cooler diplomatic heads will be required to solve the current crisis, and that a military build-up of Western warships in the Persian Gulf would only inflame tensions.
“It’s early days right now in this situation, and I suspect what’s in the mind of the decision makers is a concern about escalating the situation unnecessarily,” said Harry Harsch, who commanded HMCS Fredericton on a separate mission in the Persian Gulf in 2003 during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Harsch, now a vice-president with the Navy League of Canada, conducted numerous missions in the Strait of Hormuz, where international boundaries meet.
“It’s a very scary place,” he said. “It’s 21 miles wide. If you do the math, you take Oman’s 12-mile limit and Iran’s 12-mile limit, guess what? They intersect.”
Bessma Momani, a University of Waterloo Middle East analyst, said it would be important for Canada to join a coalition with its European allies, if asked.
“There are risks with this, however, as a hawkish populist takes over the U.K., under PM Boris Johnson, who sees kinship in the United States’ President Donald Trump and we find ourselves enmeshed in a wider U.S.-U.K.-Iran conflict,” she said.
But a senior British official, who briefed The Canadian Press on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing dispute, said the focus is on “European allies” when it comes to building its naval coalition. Britain has held talks with France and Germany, said the official.
A senior British military representative was in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday for “an international force generation conference” but the senior official stressed the effort was separate from the renewed American pressure campaign on Iran.
The official stressed that Canada’s diplomatic help is still needed on helping resolve the issue.
That’s because Britain views the nuclear agreement as the best defence against Iran eventually getting nuclear weapons, and for regional stability, said the official. Canada also has military forces in neighbouring Iraq, where it leads a NATO training mission of local forces.
“We support diplomatic and constructive approaches to this situation and are working closely with our allies and partners on this important issue,” Adam Austen, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, said in an emailed statement.
“Regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal), Canada remains concerned by Iran’s nuclear program, and calls on Iran to uphold its commitments under the agreement.”
The British official said they were authorized to speak to counter disinformation from Iran about the current impasse. The official also said the situation is another example of British and Canadian co-operation on “defending the rules-based international system.”
The official cited Freeland’s recent co-operation with her former British counterpart Jeremy Hunt in hosting the recent international media freedom conference in London.
Despite the domestic political upheaval in Britain this week with Johnson succeeding May and forming a new government, the official said the British focus on Iran has not shifted.
The official said Johnson has been kept fully in the loop through briefings. Hunt, who challenged Johnson for the Conservative party leadership, stepped down as foreign secretary, as Johnson made sweeping changes to the cabinet on Wednesday and named staunch Brexiteer Dominic Raab in Hunt’s place.