Iran has seized a tanker with Iraqi crude destined for Turkey in retaliation for the confiscation last year of the same vessel and its oil by the United States, Iranian state media reported, a move likely to stoke regional tensions.
“The Navy of the Islamic Republic of Iran seized an American oil tanker in the waters of the Gulf of Oman in accordance with a court order,” the state-run IRNA news agency said.
“After the theft of Iranian oil by the United States last year, St Nikolas tanker was seized by Iran’s Navy”, the navy said, as cited by the Iranian news agency Fars.
The US condemned what it called an “unlawful seizure” and demanded Iran “immediately release the ship and its crew”.
The seizure comes after weeks of attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-aligned Houthis on vessels in the Red Sea. The Houthi rebels say they are carrying out the attacks in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza amid Israel’s assault on the territory
The group’s attacks have raised the risk of possible retaliatory strikes from US-led forces patrolling the busy waterway, especially after a United Nations Security Council vote on Wednesday condemning the Houthis.
But while the Houthis have been concentrated on the Bab al-Mandab Strait, to the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula, Thursday’s incident was located closer to the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran.
The British maritime security firm Ambrey said the incident began at about 7:30am (03:30 GMT) when several armed men boarded the Marshall Islands-flagged St Nikolas, around 50 nautical miles east of Sohar in Oman, and then headed towards Bandar-e-Jask in Iran.
TankerTrackers.com, which tracks and reports global shipments of crude oil, said the tanker was carrying “Iraqi oil” and previously went by the name Suez Rajan.
Ambrey said the recently renamed tanker was previously prosecuted and fined for carrying sanctioned Iranian oil, which was confiscated by US authorities. The yearlong dispute ended with the US Department of Justice seizing one million barrels of Iranian crude.
United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which is linked to the British military and provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, said the incident began in waters between Oman and Iran, and it had received a report from the ship’s security manager of hearing “unknown voices over the phone” alongside the ship’s captain.
Ambrey said that the men covered surveillance cameras as they boarded the vessel. As the tanker appeared to veer towards Bandar-e-Jask, its tracker was turned off, it added.
The St Nikolas was sailing from the Iraqi port of Basra to Turkey, according to MarineTraffic.com, a tracking website.
The vessel was manned by a crew of 19, including 18 Filipino nationals and one Greek national, the operator said, adding that Turkish oil refiner Tupras chartered it.
The Gulf of Oman, a key route for the oil industry that separates Oman and Iran, has witnessed a series of hijackings and attacks over the years, often involving Iran.
Since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, Iran and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Middle East, also have had a series of tense encounters in the waterway.
The US and its allies have also been seizing Iranian oil cargoes since 2019, which has led to a series of attacks in the Middle East attributed to Iran, as well as ship seizures by its military and paramilitary forces, threatening global shipping.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA