Iran says it has summoned the British ambassador over the weekend after the UK publicly came out in support of the White House assessment pinpointing Iranian forces behind last Thursday's two tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman.
Last Friday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the attacks were “almost certainly” carried out by Tehran. Hunt also warned of the "great risk" of Iran drifting toward war against the US and its allies during a television interview.
Crucially, Britain is set to deploy 100 Royal Marines to the Persian Gulf in order to form a "rapid reaction force" to protect UK assets in the region.
According to the Sunday Times:
Military sources said that 100 marines from 42 Commando, based near Plymouth, will form a rapid reaction force, Special Purpose Task Group 19. They will operate from ships patrolling the region from Britain’s new naval base in Bahrain.
The marines are expected to arrive in Bahrain "within weeks" as well as a team of British experts to assist in investigating precisely what materials were used in the tanker attacks, which contradictory accounts say could have been mines or torpedoes, or even an aerial projectile.
UK defence minister and MP Tobias Ellwood told Sky’s Ridge on Sunday: “We have a substantial presence in the Middle East that looks after our interests there. We understand the Middle East, we have a number of allies there as well.”
He added that Britain would beef up its presence in coordination with US forces: “We will be working with the United States to make sure this area is safe and to make sure that we actually deescalate the tensions there but I don’t think Iran should be under any doubt [about] that fact that we will be determined to protect our assets and our interests in the region.”
Among the more interesting quotes from the Sunday Times report suggests the ease with which a direct firefight between US-UK allied forces and Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces - which patrol the vital Strait of Hormuz - could erupt:
A military source said that having marines with machine guns on the decks of warships or merchant ships was likely to see off any Iranian speedboats trying to sneak up on them.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that while the US maintains the view that it is “unmistakable” that Iran is responsible for the attacks, and that it has “lots of data, lots of evidence” — the White House does not actually want war.
“President Trump has done everything he can to avoid war. We don’t want war,” he said. “The United States is going make sure that we take all the actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise that achieve that outcome,” Pompeo added.
But given the potential for a rapid build-up of western forces in the already crowded Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, and with Iran's IRGC on a heightened state of alert, it could be too little too late given both sides appear "war ready" and are already blundering precisely toward that dire scenario.