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Iran seizes oil tanker in Gulf of Oman that was recently at center of standoff with U.S.

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates — An oil tanker once at the center of a crisis between Iran and the United States was boarded and seized by Iranian forces in the Gulf of Oman Thursday, Iranian state media said, citing the country’s navy, after reports that “unauthorized” men in military uniforms had boarded the vessel. 

A map shows the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, with Iran to the north and the UAE and Oman exclave Musandam to the south.

Getty/iStockphoto


“The Navy of the Islamic Republic of Iran announced the seizure of an American oil tanker in the waters of the Oman Sea with a court order,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard force, said in a message posted on its channel on the Telegram social media app. The state-run IRNA news agency also reported the navy’s statement.

Suspicion had immediately fallen on Iran as the ship, once known as the Suez Rajan, was involved in a yearlong dispute that ultimately saw the U.S. Justice Department seize 1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil from it. Another Iranian news agency, Mehr, cited the navy as calling Thursday’s seizure “retaliation” for the previous U.S. action against the tanker.

Satellite-tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press last showed the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker, now called the St. Nikolas, turning off its course and heading toward the port of Bandar-e Jask in Iran. The Marshall Islands is an independent nation, but it has deep historic and economic ties with the United States.

An image provided by the Refnitiv Eikon data service shows a map tracking the path of the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker St. Nikolas in the Gulf of Oman, Jan. 11, 2024.

REFINITIV EIKON/Reuters


The seizure comes after weeks of attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea, including their largest barrage ever of drones and missiles launched late Tuesday.

Eighteen drones, two-antiship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile were fired in that salvo alone by the Iranian-backed Houthis, but all were successfully shot down, the U.S. military’s Central Command said.

Yahya Saree, a military spokesman for the Houthis, said Wednesday that the group had fired a “large number” of missiles and drones at a U.S. ship “providing support” to Israel amid its war against Hamas in Gaza.

The attacks on shipping have raised the risk of possible retaliatory strikes by U.S.-led forces now patrolling the vital waterway, especially after a United Nations Security Council vote on Wednesday condemning the Houthis and as American and British officials warned of potential consequences over the attacks.


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The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, said Thursday’s apparent seizure began early in the morning with “unauthorized” armed men boarding the tanker in the waters between Oman and Iran. The area is heavily transited by ships coming in and out of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil traded globally passes.

The U.K. military-run group described receiving a report from the ship’s security manager of hearing “unknown voices over the phone” alongside the ship’s captain. It said that further efforts to contact the ship had failed and that the men who boarded the vessel wore “black military-style uniforms with black masks.”

The private security firm Ambrey said “four to five armed persons” had boarded the ship, which it identified as the St. Nikolas. It said that the men covered the surveillance cameras as they boarded.

An oil tanker then known as the Suez Rajan, which is now called the St. Nikolas and sails under the Marshall Islands flag, is seen in Japan’s Tokyo Bay in an Oct. 4, 2020, file photo.

Reuters/Daisuke Nimura


The tanker had been off the city of Basra, Iraq, loading crude oil bound for Aliaga, Turkey, for the Turkish refinery firm Tupras.

The St. Nikolas was previously named the Suez Rajan, associated with the Greek shipping company Empire Navigation. In a statement to the AP, Athens-based Empire Navigation acknowledged losing contact with the vessel, which has a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek national. The company did not elaborate.

Attention began focusing on the Suez Rajan in February 2022, when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker carried oil from Iran’s Khargh Island, its main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf. Satellite photos and shipping data analyzed at the time by the AP supported the allegation.

For months, the ship sat in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore before suddenly sailing for the Texas coast without explanation. The vessel discharged its cargo to another tanker in August, which released its oil in Houston as part of a Justice Department order.

In September, Empire Navigation pleaded guilty to smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil and agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine over a case involving the tanker.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast, did not immediately respond to a request for comment over the incident. Prior to the report by Tasnim, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency, citing foreign reports, had mentioned the boarding but did not say anything more. Iran’s mission to the United Nations also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the vessel, then-Suez Rajan, headed for America in 2022, Iran seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one with cargo for major U.S. oil company Chevron Corp. In July, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s naval arm threatened further action against anyone offloading the Suez Rajan, with state media linking the recent seizures to the cargo’s fate.

Since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, waters around the strait have seen a series of ship seizures by Iran, as well as assaults targeting shipping that the Navy has blamed on Tehran. Iran and the Navy also have had a series of tense encounters in the waterway, though recent attention has been focused on the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

The U.S. and its allies also have been seizing Iranian oil cargoes since 2019. That has led to a series of attacks in the Mideast attributed to the Islamic Republic, as well as ship seizures by Iranian military and paramilitary forces that threaten global shipping.

The Houthis say their attacks are aimed at halting the suffering of Palestinians in Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, the rebels have increasingly targeted ships with tenuous or no ties to Israel.

Meanwhile, satellite tracking data analyzed by the AP on Thursday showed that an Iranian cargo vessel suspected of being a spying platform in the Red Sea had left the waterway. The data showed the Behshad had transited through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait into the Gulf of Aden.

The Behshad has been in the Red Sea since 2021 off Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago. It arrived there after Iran removed the Saviz, another suspected spy base in the Red Sea that had suffered damage in an attack that analysts attributed to Israel amid a wider shadow war of ship attacks in the region.



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