Official: Britain raises security level for UK ships in the Gulf to 'critical'

By Nick Paton Walsh, Hira Himayun, Schams Elwazer and Larry Register, CNN

(CNN) -- The UK has raised the security level for British ships in the Gulf to the highest state of alert, a UK official confirmed to CNN on Friday, as tensions with Iran continue to grow.

The decision to raise the threat level to 3, or 'critical,' was made on Tuesday, according to UK media reports, one day before Iranian ships attempted to seize a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

A level 3 security level is put in place when and where the risk of an attack on a UK ship is assessed to be critical, according to International Ship and Port Facility (ISPS) security code.

The UK official told CNN that media reports about the threat level being raised to its highest level for ships in the Middle East were accurate.

CNN understands that British officials considered a variety of sources -- including open source information, intelligence, previous behavior, recent events and international partnerships -- before making the decision

"Information from all of those sources enables Her Majesty's Government to make rounded decisions that protect UK and/or allies interests," a UK security source told CNN.

The decision comes as Iran has threatened to retaliate against the UK after British commandos seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar last week. The UK said the tanker was seized because it was in violation of EU sanctions against shipping oil to a port in Syria, which is where the UK said the Iranian tanker was heading. Iran has denied the tanker was going to Syria.

A day after the threat level was reportedly raised, armed Iranian boats unsuccessfully tried to intercept a British oil tanker as it was crossing into the Strait of Hormuz. A Royal Navy warship that was escorting the tanker then leveled deck guns at the Iranian vessels, turning them away.

CNN reached out to the UK Ministry of Defense for comment on the raised security level and was referred to the UK Department for Transportation (DfT).

A DfT spokesperson sent a statement to CNN: "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."

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