Iran seizes foreign oil tanker ‘smuggling oil’ in Gulf strait

Iranian authorities seized UK-flagged vessel last month

Olivia Alabaster
Sunday 04 August 2019 11:01 BST
Iran's Revolutionary Guards publish purported exchange with British warship

Iran has seized an Iraqi oil tanker allegedly “smuggling fuel” to unspecified Arab states, according to state media.

“The IRGC’s naval forces have seized a foreign oil tanker in the Persian Gulf that was smuggling fuel for some Arab countries,” Press TV reported, referring to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and quoting IRGC commander Ramezan Zirahi as saying.

The vessel was carrying 700,000l of fuel, and was carrying seven sailors, the TV station added, who have been detained.

The news agency reported that the ship was seized near Farsi Island, where an Iranian Guard navy base is located.

The island sits in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran, north of the Strait of Hormuz.

In July, the IRGC seized a UK-flagged vessel, amid heightened tensions in the vital shipping lane.

Iran initially claimed that vessel, the Stena Impero, had collided with an Iranian fishing boat.

The speaker of the Iranian parliament also said the capture of that vessel was in retaliation for the earlier detention, by British royal marines, of an Iranian-flagged vessel, the Grace 1.

That boat was allegedly transporting oil to Syria, which the UK said was in violation of EU sanctions.

Then-UK defence minister Penny Mourdant said that the Stena Impero was in Omani territorial waters at the time.

Britain has mooted the idea of a European-led maritime force in the Strait of Hormuz, a proposal rejected by Iran as an infringement of its sovereignty.

Then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested any European force could be seen by Tehran as less threatening than a counter US proposal for a similar force, given the US abandonment of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that the US is still talking with allies about its proposed “Operation Sentinel”.

Speaking at a meeting between US and Australian leaders, US defence secretary Mark Esper said he has already gotten a good response from allies and some announcements could be expected soon. And Pompeo told reporters that a lot of conversations are taking place.

Marine general Joseph Dunford, the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the Pentagon has developed a specific plan for Operation Sentinel, which would see the US military’s main role as providing “maritime domain awareness” – intelligence and surveillance information – to the ships of coalition partners.

Any escorting of commercial ships would be done by military ships sailing under the flag of the commercial vessel, he said.

After the US last year pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, the Trump administration also increased sanctions against Iran, and this could help explain what we are now seeing in the increasingly tense Strait of Hormuz, said Holly Dagres, Iran expert and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Iran believes the United States declared economic warfare when it announced as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ policy to bring Iranian oil exports down to zero,” Ms Dagres told The Independent.

“Tehran threatened to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz – though it didn’t explain how. What we are seeing in recent weeks is Iran begin to make good on that threat, by making shipping more precarious through the strait.”

“Whether this latest oil tanker was in fact smuggling oil or not, the United States will point to this latest incident as more incentive for allies to join Operation Sentinel,” she added.

“Having that been said, if this operation goes into full force, it will likely lead down a path of direct conflict in the near future – as long as Tehran continues to feel the impact of sanctions.”

The tanker has been taken to the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr, an IRGC naval commander has said.

The cargo of the unnamed ship, which was seized on Wednesday, has been handed over to the National Oil Distribution Company’s branch in Bushehr, Brig-Gen Ramezan Zirahi (Ramazan Zirahi) said, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported on Sunday.

“Naval units of IRGC’s navy second zone are performing duty as per routine and with all-out intelligence domination to protect the national interests with full force and will not hesitate for a moment in performing this crucial task,” Mr Zirahi said.

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