UK ships on alert after British frigate thwarts Iranian attempt to stop tanker in Gulf

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File photo of the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose, which thwarted on Wednesday an attempt by Iranian boats to seize a British tanker in the Arabia Gulf. (Shutterstock photo)
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Updated 12 July 2019
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UK ships on alert after British frigate thwarts Iranian attempt to stop tanker in Gulf

  • "We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region,” Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said
  • British Royal Marines earlier boarded Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar

TEHRAN/ WASHINGTON: The British government said Thursday three Iranian ships had attempted to “impede the passage” of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, forcing HMS Montrose — a UK frigate — to intervene.

The incident occurred almost a week after British Royal Marines boarded an Iranian tanker, Grace 1, off Gibraltar and seized it on suspicion that it was breaking sanctions by taking oil to Syria.

US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday’s incident happened as British Heritage was at the northern entrance of the Strait of Hormuz. 

“The Royal Navy HMS Montrose, which was also there, pointed its guns at the boats and warned them over radio, at which point they dispersed,” one of the officials said.

“It was harassment and an attempt to interfere with the passage,” the other official said.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards denied on Thursday that they had impeded a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, the force’s Sepah news agency said.

“There has been no confrontation in the last 24 hours with any foreign vessels, including British ones,” the Revolutionary Guards said in a statement.

“Now an action that does not need ability but some stupidity has been carried out by them,” Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, a deputy Guards commander, said, according to Tasnim.

 

“The American government ... and also England .... should not have taken action if they had made the smallest calculation,” he said.

“We had rented this ship and we carried the cargo. Their action was very silly and they will certainly regret it. Our reciprocal action will be announced.”

Britain is concerned about action by Iranian vessels to stop a commercial oil tanker, Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said on Thursday, calling for a de-escalation of tensions.

"We are concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region," the spokesman told reporters.

"We have a long-standing maritime presence in the Gulf. We are continuously monitoring the security situation there and are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law."

Britain has recommended all British-flagged ships go to a heightened state of security in the Strait of Hormuz, Sky News reported on Thursday, citing unnamed maritime industry sources.

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A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: "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."

Threats to international freedom of navigation require an international solution, US Central Command said on Thursday, after three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-flagged tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
"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," Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for US Central Command, said in a statement.

The Kremlin has called for restraint following a brief standoff between British and Iranian naval vessels near the Arabian Gulf.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that “freedom of navigation should be ensured in the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz,” which he said was crucial for the global economy. Peskov said Moscow was aware of both Britain’s statement and Iran’s denial that it tried to impede the ship's passage.

Peskov called on “all parties” to show restraint and settle their disputes by negotiations.

Around 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

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Meanwhile, French armed forces chief Francois Lecointre said on Thursday that tensions in the Gulf were unlikely to spiral out of control.

“There is a clash of wills underway between the United States and Iran with posturing, reactions, signals and which can from one day to the next get out of control,” Lecointre told CNews television.

“I think it is under control now... I don’t think it can spiral out of control but there can be escalation,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Britain would face “consequences” over the seizure of the Iranian tanker.

Tensions between Iran and the US and its allies have risen sharply since Washington stepped up economic sanctions against Iran and moved to bring the country’s oil exports to zero as part of a “maximum pressure” policy to make Iran halt actions that it said undermined regional security.

Iran has responded to the sanctions by starting to breach limits put on its nuclear activities under a 2015 deal with world powers.

Several oil tankers were attacked in waters near Iran’s southern coast in May and June, for which the US blamed Iran. Tehran denied any involvement.

Last month, Iran shot down a US drone near the Strait of Hormuz, prompting President Donald Trump to order retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off.

The US hopes to enlist allies over the next two weeks or so in a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday. 


‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

Updated 20 July 2019
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‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

  • On June 17, 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan entered the history books when he journeyed into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are spearheading a new era of Arab space exploration

Arab astronauts may not have set foot on the moon, but an Arab geographer left his mark on the Earth’s natural satellite as long ago as 1935.

A lunar impact crater 65 km in diameter was named AbulFeda by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in honor of Isma’il Ibn Abu Al-Fida, a prince of the Ayyubid dynasty who lived between 1273 and 1331 in Syria.

The IAU was founded in 1919 to promote the science of astronomy and pay homage to major contributors in the field. AbulFeda is just one of 11 lunar craters named after luminaries from the golden age of Islamic civilization, which lasted from the mid-7th century to the 13th century.

In all, 24 lunar craters have been named after individuals from the region, including Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), an Andalusian inventor, physician, musician, engineer, humanitarian and poet — and the first man to fly. According to a 9th century poem, the so-called Leonardo da Vinci of the Muslim world “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight.”

Ibn Firnas was 65 when he became the world’s first hang-glider, jumping off the side of a mountain with feathers attached to his body and “touching the sky for a few minutes,” according to historical accounts.

Centuries later, in February, 1976, a meeting between the-then president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and three US astronauts changed the course of a man’s life and fired the imagination of a young nation. A year earlier, the astronauts had taken part in the historic docking of an Apollo command/service module and a Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule as part of the first joint US–Soviet space flight.

A black-and-white photograph of the meeting, which can be seen at the operational air force squadron in Abu Dhabi, made a great impression on a young Emirati pilot, Hazza Al-Mansouri.

“I would look at the photo and imagine retaking it with three Emirati astronauts sitting with the founding father,” he said later.

Now 31-year-old Al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first astronaut, will also make history when he joins a mission to the International Space Station in September.

“It is a great honor to be represent the UAE in space, and to make my dream and the dream of a nation come true,” he told Arab News.

The astronaut plans to take personal items with him into space, including a seed of his country’s national tree, Al-Ghaf, and his traditional Emirati outfit.

The photograph of Sheikh Zayed and the US astronauts was not the only image that fired Al-Mansouri’s imagination. Inside his fourth-grade school book was a color photo of Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the first Arab and royal to travel into space.

On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the space shuttle Discovery. During the seven-day mission, he helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).

Prince Sultan became a hero and an icon across the region. “We have long reached the stars and beyond,” he said.

Two years later, on July 22, 1987, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the first Syrian and the second Arab in space, carrying a vial soil from Damascus on his journey from Earth.

Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, struck a responsive chord with many when he later told an interviewer: “When you go up there, you realize there are no borders, no countries, no nationalities. Just Earth. Mother Earth. We should protect this Earth. Who hurts their mother?”

The 1980s was a decade of expansion, exploration and transformation in the Middle East. Now, 30 years later, that energy has returned.

As the third Arab country (after Saudi Arabia and Syria) to send a man into space, the UAE has a special relationship with space and the moon.
In a corner of the Al-Ain national museum is “a piece of the moon” gifted to Sheikh Zayed by the three US astronauts.

“This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Valley of Taurus-Littrow. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace,” says the plaque describing the object.

Next to it, is a small, well-traveled UAE flag.

“This flag of your nation was carried to the moon aboard spacecraft America during the Apollo XVII mission, Dec. 7 to 19, 1972. Presented to the people of the UAE from the people of the United States of America, Richard Nixon 1973.”

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the UAE is looking forward to the launch of Al-Amal, or Hope, in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. The spacecraft will orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.

“The moon landing was a pivotal moment in human history,” Salem Humaid Al-Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Arab News.

“It was when something we imagined became a reality, and humanity left this planet. It was the result of science, engineering, mathematics and imagination coming together.”

“Space makes people dream the impossible,” said Al-Marri.

The words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — have become part of history.

“It was such a powerful statement that influenced so many who watched the original landing as well as those from the current generation who watched it on the Internet or TV,” said Al-Marri. “There isn’t anyone who hasn’t see the moon landing somewhere.”

The space era began as a “race” between the superpowers that helped to break new ground.

“The race pushed space industry development to new levels. While it was driven by military involvement, the benefits from the technological advances were for all people,” said Al-Marri. “We have better satellites, as well as a better understanding of our planet and the world around it, as a result.”

However, after the 1969 moon landing, strained budgets and depleted resources forced the space industry to abandon competition and embrace cooperation.

“Space today is all about cooperating to reach new heights. If you want to fly into space now, you have to do so on a Russian spacecraft as the Americans retired their shuttles in 2011,” Al-Marri said.

Al-Mansouri will head into space together with a US and a Russian astronaut, symbolizing a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.

“The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost the Arab presence in the space industry,” said Al-Marri.

“Space is bringing Arab nations together.”

In the broad sweep of history, these space programs are building on the contributions of the Islamic civilization that shaped the modern world — and honoring the memory of scientists and explorers such as Abu Al-Fida and Ibn Firnas.