Britain urges UN to respond to ‘destabilising actions’ by Iran following tanker incidents

Asphalt Princess now safe, says UK maritime agency

Jon Stone,Bel Trew
Wednesday 04 August 2021 07:14
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Related video: Evidence points to Iranian responsibility for earlier drone attack on tanker, UK minister says

Britain has urged the United Nations to respond to "destabilising actions and lack of respect for international law" by Iran following a series of incidents involving tankers in the Persian gulf.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday morning wrote to security council president T. S. Tirumurti, amid news of a possible hijacking off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, reportedly on the ship the Asphalt Princess.

It comes after a Briton and Romanian were killed in a separate drone attack on the Mercer Street tanker off the coast of Oman, which the UK, US and Israel blame on Tehran.

As the latest incident unfolded UK chief of the defence staff General Sir Nick Carter said had Iran made a "big mistake" by allegedly targeting a tanker last week.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What we need to be doing, fundamentally, is calling out Iran for its very reckless behaviour.

"They made a big mistake on the attack they did against the Mercer Street vessel last week because, of course, that has very much internationalised the state of play in the Gulf."

He added: "Ultimately, we have got to restore deterrence because it is behaviour like that which leads to escalation, and that could very easily lead to miscalculation and that would be very disastrous for all the peoples of the Gulf and the international community."

The Royal Navy reported on Wednesday morning that boarders had left the the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker Asphalt Princess, which was believed to have been seized off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

Three maritime security forces had told Reuters on Tuesday that the Asphalt Princess tanker had been seized by suspected Iranian-backed forces, which Iran denies.

Analysts however told The Independent that the latest incident could have been related to “small-time” smuggling rather than a major international incident.

The AIS tracking status of the tanker was "underway using engine" early on Wednesday, according to Refinitiv ship tracking data.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a Royal Navy agency, said what it had described on Tuesday as a potential hijack incident was now "complete" and the vessel involved was safe.

The agency gave no further details in a warning notice based on a third-party source, and did not name the vessel involved. Shipping authority Lloyd's List and maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global had both identified the hijacked vessel as Panama-flagged asphalt tanker Asphalt Princess.

The incident took place in an area in the Arabian Sea leading to the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit for about one-fifth of the world's sea-borne oil exports.

Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had shown it slowly heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early on Wednesday, before it stopped and changed course back toward Oman.

The Independent has contacted the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for more information.

Tehran’s relationship with western powers has deteriorated in the years since Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 treaty that sought to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Commercial shipping around the Persian Gulf has increasingly been caught in the crosshairs.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said: “This attempted hijacking comes just days after Iran’s attack on the MV Mercer Street. There should be a thorough investigation of what has taken place and who was responsible.

“The world economy depends on freedom of navigation, which is guaranteed under international law. The UK government, working with our allies, should now review support and protection for merchant shipping in the region to reflect the heightened risks.”

And Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who sits on parliament's foreign affairs committee, told The Independent: "Whether it was Iranian proxies or the Iranian military, the Gulf of Oman remains a treacherous stretch of water for commercial shipping companies. This will only become worse as deteriorating relations between Iran and other nations leave Iran feeling more aggrieved and warranted in escalating incidents like this, as well as limpet mine attacks.

"It’s a reasonable assumption that the armed group were Iranian proxies or Revolutionary Guard, because Iran not only has a history of maritime piracy, and then denying outright their actions, but the Asphalt Princess has been detained by Iranian forces on multiple occasions in the past, and the owners previously had another ship targeted as well."

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent and well-connected Emirati political analyst told The Independent that the UAE had no interest in flared tensions in the strategic waterway and would be looking for ways to de-escalate after the recent incidents. 

“This should be of concern to the international community which should step up but the UAE doesn’t want an increase in tension or hostilities - it does not want escalation at the moment,” he said. 

“The thinking here is the UAE does not want to be dragged into any unnecessary confrontation with Iran. We do not want that to happen period. That said, everyone has a direct interest in the safety and security of this very fragile water way.”

Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based maritime expert and non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who has been following the Asphalt Princess said he thought it was more likely related to small-time Iranian oil smuggling than a major international incident. 

“The company that owns the Asphalt Princes - is Prime Tankers LLC (of the UAE) - it operates a fleet of middle age to older ships and most of the ships have gaps in their Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking that makes us suspicious that they are hiding small time smuggling, perhaps Iranian.” 

“We don’t know for sure but they are a prime suspect in Iranian oil smuggling - it is the second time their ships have been involved in something like this. As you can see from the MT Riah incident in 2019” – a refernec to the seizure of Panama-flagged tanker whose 12-man Indian crew were detained by the Iranian coastguard in 2019. 

“The ownership is for sure Prime Tankers LLC - this is the second time they have been involved in an incident . This company has no linkage to Israel whatsoever.”

He said that although the alleged hijacking incident was taking place at the same time as a series of attacks on tankers and soaring tensions between Iran, the US and Israel this was likely “an exception”. 

Isik said it was likely tied to “rogue elements of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps not necessarily operating on behalf of Iran” that were trying to settle a commercial dispute.  

“Maybe someone didn’t get paid and so they boarded the ship,” he said, adding that he was certain the ship was Iranian only because at the beginning of the incident it changed course towards Iran, which he said would not be possible if it was private or pirate operation. 

Additional reporting by agencies

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