Jeremy Hunt appeals for calm as Iran seizes two British oil tankers

The next prime minister could face a test of their foreign policy judgement - and a clash with Donald Trump - much earlier than expected.

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Iranian forces have seized two British oil tankers in the Gulf amid rising tensions over between the regime, UK and US.

Two ships - the British-registered Stena Impero and the Liberian-registered but British owned Mesdar - were suddenly diverted from their courses in international shipping lanes by Iran's Revolutionary Guard this evening.

The owners of the Stena Impero, which is said to be heading towards Iran, have been unable to make contact with its 23-strong crew. Reports from Iran, meanwhile, suggest that the Mesdar may already be back on course.

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said a statement that he was "extremely concerned" by the seizures, which mark a sharp escalation in hostilities between Iran and the UK. 

The threat to British shipping in Iranian waters - a major thoroughfare for the transportation of oil from other gulf states - was raised to "critical", the highest possible level, by the government last week.

It came after Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker - suspected of transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions - near Gibraltar earlier this month. Iranian forces responded in kind with the attempted seizure of a British tanker on 10 July.

In an interview with Sky News this evening, Hunt appealed for calm but warned of "consequences" in the event that Iran did not relinquish control of the ships. He stressed, however, that military action was not being considered.

Earlier, the Foreign Secretary had said in a statement: "I'm extremely concerned by the seizure of two vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz.

 "I will shortly attend a COBR meeting to review what we know and what we can do to swiftly secure the release of the two vessels - a British-flagged vessel and a Liberian-flagged vessel. 

"Their crews comprise a range of nationalities, but we understand there are no British citizens on board either ship. 

"Our Ambassador in Tehran is in contact with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to resolve the situation and we are working closely with international partners. 

"These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region."

Tom Watson, Labour's deputy leader, said that the news was "a matter of real concern" and echoed Hunt's call for Iran to allow the vessels safe passage. Meanwhile Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leadership candidate and foreign affairs spokesperson, called for "cool heads" and urged the government to prevent Donald Trump from using the incident as a pretence for military action.

The continuing stand-off - and any further escalation of tensions both over Gulf shipping and the Iranian nuclear deal - will provide a key early test for the next Conservative leader, who will take office as prime minister next Wednesday. 

Not only will it provide a sharp and immediate test of their judgement on foreign policy, but it also offers potential for an early clash with the US president - something both Hunt and Boris Johnson have been at pains to avoid throughout the campaign.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.