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Iran said it had seized an oil tanker off the coast of Oman, escalating fears that the Islamic republic could step up attacks against shipping in the Middle East’s waterways.
Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said Iranian naval forces captured an “American oil tanker” in the Gulf of Oman, acting on court orders. The news agency was quoting the navy, but provided no further details.
TankerTrackers, a private maritime intelligence service, identified the vessel as the St Nikolas, owned by Athens-based Empire Navigation, and said it was carrying Iraqi oil. That vessel was previously embroiled in a dispute between Tehran and Washington over the tanker’s involvement in breaching US sanctions. Empire said in October it had settled the dispute with the US Department of Justice.
The incident will raise concerns that Tehran could threaten shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint, which lies just north of where the tanker was seized. Oil prices rose on Thursday, with Brent crude up almost 2 per cent on the day at $78 a barrel.
Iranian forces have in the past seized tankers during periods of heightened tension with the US and other western states. Tehran has said it has no desire to see the current conflict between Israel and Hamas escalate into a broader regional war.
But Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched more than 25 attacks on commercial shipping in the southern Red Sea since November, prompting threats of a military response by western powers.
Empire Navigation said it had “lost contact” with St Nikolas at about 6.30am Athens time, while it was sailing off the coast of Oman. The ship had a crew of one Greek and 18 Filipinos.
“The vessel had loaded the previous days in Basra [in Iraq] a cargo of about 145,000 metric tonnes of crude oil destined for Aliağa [in Turkey], via the Suez Canal,” Empire added. The cargo belonged to Tüpraş, a Turkish oil group.
UK Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors shipping incidents in the region, said a vessel had been boarded by four to five “armed unauthorised persons” at 3.30am GMT on Thursday and had subsequently lost contact.
Transponder traffic shows the tanker was proceeding south-east along the Omani coast until 4.40am GMT, when it abruptly turned and started heading north. When it last reported its position, it was heading at 10 knots towards Bandar-e-Jask on the southern Iranian coast.
The St Nikolas, previously called the Suez Rajan, was seized by US authorities last year for transporting Iranian oil, sparking a retaliatory seizure by Iran of a tanker carrying Kuwaiti oil for US company Chevron.
The ship is a “Suezmax” tanker, the largest kind that can use the Suez Canal fully laden. Such vessels can carry up to 1mn barrels of oil.
The Houthis attacks on shipping have been concentrated in the Red Sea. The rebels, which control north Yemen, this week launched their biggest attack to date, targeting western warships with drones and missiles, heightening expectations of retaliation.
The assaults on shipping in one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes are part of a wider string of attacks carried out by Iran-backed militant groups since the Israel-Hamas war began.
President Joe Biden’s administration in the US has been hesitant to respond aggressively to the Houthi attacks, which have halted most container shipping in the Red Sea. Oil prices, which could be pushed upwards by military action in the region, are a big concern ahead of the US presidential election in November.
On Wednesday, the UN Security Council demanded an end to attacks on ships in the Red Sea and called on the Houthis to release the Galaxy Leader, a vehicle-carrying vessel they seized and diverted in November, and its crew.
Additional reporting by Chris Cook in London
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