The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has seized the British oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian media reported. UK authorities said the tanker had ‘veered off course’ before capture.
The Stena Impero was headed to Saudi Arabia but left the international sea lanes and headed north towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, marine tracking data showed on Friday.
Prior to the seizure, the tanker turned off its tracking device and had ignored warnings, Iranian military sources told state media.
“The reason behind the detention of the British tanker is that it did not adhere to the sea routes in the Strait of Hormuz, turned off the automatic identification system (AIS), polluted international waters and did not pay attention to the warnings of Iran,” the source said.
The 30,000-ton tanker is owned by Stena Bulk, and was bound for the Saudi port of Al Jubail.
Stena issued a statement that the ship was “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz, while the vessel was in international waters.”
The company is “presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran.” There are 23 crew members aboard.
UK authorities said they were “assessing the situation following reports of an incident in the Gulf.”
Another tanker, the Liberian-flagged Mesdar, abruptly changed course and headed for the Iranian mainland on Friday evening. The ship is owned by Norbulk Shipping UK and was bound for Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia.
Tehran and London have been at odds since July 4, when Royal Marines boarded and seized Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar, accusing the ship of illegally transporting oil to Syria. Iranian authorities condemned the seizure as “piracy” and vowed to retaliate.
Six days later, the Royal Navy said its frigate HMS Montrose intervened to prevent several Iranian boats from seizing the UK-flagged tanker British Heritage in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier this week, alarms were raised after the disappearance of the Emirati-based tanker MT Riah, flying the Panamanian flag. Iran said the tanker experienced technical troubles and had been towed to port for repairs.
On Thursday, a US warship entered the Persian Gulf and reportedly shot down an Iranian drone that had approached to within 1,000 meters in a “threatening” manner. Iran has denied losing any drones, however.
Washington has sought to establish a “coalition” of allied navies in the region to ensure “freedom of navigation” in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world for oil traffic.
Iran ups the ante, taking custody of a second tanker (later released after being reminded of the rules of the water):
A second British-owned tanker may have been seized by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz, in what appears to be retaliation for the British capture of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar earlier this month.
The Liberian-flagged ship Mesdar abruptly changed course and headed for the Iranian mainland on Friday evening. The ship is owned by Norbulk Shipping UK and was bound for Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia.
Tehran has not officially claimed the seizure of the Mesdar, unlike the earlier capture of the Stena Impero. Thattanker was bound for the Saudi port of Al Jubail, but was approached by IRGC vessels and redirected to the island of Qeshm, Iranian media said.
Stena Bulk, the company owning the vessel said that it was “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter” before changing course. The IRGC’s Public Relations Department said that the ship was “confiscated” over its failure “to respect international maritime rules.”
Meanwhile, the company said it could not presently contact its vessel with 23 crew members on board. The British authorities said that they are assessing the situation while the UK Chamber of Shipping called for “further protection for the merchant vessels.”
In response the UK issued this statement:
The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has confirmed the seizure of two vessels by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. He also said London is seeking to secure their release and called for the freedom of navigation in the strait.
“I’m extremely concerned by the seizure of two naval vessels by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz,” Hunt told journalists, adding that he would soon attend the emergency cabinet meeting aimed at looking for ways to “swiftly secure the release of the two vessels.”
“These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region.”
Analysts feel Iran had to make a move in response to the combination of the UK’s hijacking of the Grace 1, the pressure of American sanction and European inaction:
The seizure of British-owned oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz is the signal that Iran’s patience has run out, worn thin by European inaction over a year after the US pullout from the nuclear deal, analysts have told RT.
Prior to May this year, Iran exercised extreme restraint despite the US sanctions and its frustration with Europe’s failure to offset the losses they caused, Hamed Mousavi, political science professor at the university of Tehran, said.
Eventually, Iran’s patience ran out, but not before the US “made sure that Iran has very few options remaining.”
“For a year Tehran was not doing anything and was abiding by the nuclear deal to the letter in the hopes that the Europeans would come up with a form of a mechanism… that would allow Iran to circumvent the US sanctions,” Mousavi said.
By refusing to hold back any longer, Iran wants to send a clear signal to the UK, “but especially to the Americans,” that Tehran has “the means and the power to respond to pressure and to aggression.” Iran’s actions are also a response to the US military build-up at its Middle East doorstep, Mousavi said.
Iranian journalist and Middle East expert Abbas Aslani agreed that the US withdrawal was what triggered the crisis along with the “inaction of the Europeans.”
It’s “a sure bet” that the ships were seized in retaliation to the UK’s behavior, Kevin Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team told RT. Afrasiabi said he believes the British government could have easily avoided inflaming the standoff with Iran if it released the Iranian oil tanker it seized two weeks ago, thus “foolishly inserting itself in the crisis between Iran and Washington.”
Instead of putting an end to the crisis, the UK “decided to continue to appease Washington war-mongers by aiding an illegal oil embargo imposed on Iran unilaterally by the US” and militarizing the Gulf.
London “thinks it can just trample on the rights of third world nations with impunity and expect the other side to lie down and die,” Afrasiabi said – but that “will not happen with Iran.” On the other hand, if the UK takes a step back now and releases the tanker, the ex-adviser believes Iran will reciprocate.
Britain advised its commercial assets to avoid the Strait for now. According to the IRGC, a British warship tried to stop Iran from seizing the tanker:
A Royal Navy warship escorting the Stena Impero tanker before its Friday detention by the IRGC attempted to put up “resistance and interference” to stop the Iranian military from bringing the tanker to shore, IRGC spokesman Brig. Gen. Ramezan Sharif has said, Fars News Agency has reported.
The IRGC spokesman alleged that the Royal Navy ship intervened to try to stop Iran’s naval commandos, including by flying helicopters in the vicinity.
Sharif emphasized that the IRGC’s actions during Friday’s incident were in strict accordance with international maritime laws governing behaviour in the Persian Gulf and the Strait fo Hormuz. According to the spokesman, ‘some foreign vessels’ failed to comply with these regulations, engaging in behaviour which he described as ‘arrogant, provocative and threatening.’
The UK’s Ministry of Defence declined to comment to Reuters on the veracity of the IRGC spokesman’s allegations.