Iranian forces said Friday that it had seized the ship, as another vessel, bound for Saudi Arabia, lost contact with its owners and abruptly changed course toward Iran
ByAresu Eqbali and Benoit Faucon July 19, 2019
TEHRAN—Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it had seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, amid mounting concerns over oil shipment disruptions in the Persian Gulf.
Another vessel, the Mesdar, which was bound for Saudi Arabia, lost contact with its owners and abruptly changed course toward Iran as it sailed near the Strait, according to U.K. maritime authorities and a ship-tracking agency.
Friday’s developments at sea came hours after a court in the British territory of Gibraltar extended the detention of an Iranian oil tanker seized by British authorities who said it was breaching European sanctions on Syria.
The British-flagged tanker, named Stena Impero, was seized due to violation of international laws and regulations while passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the IRGC said on its official website, Sepahnews.com. The vessel had been detained at the request of regional port authorities and delivered to shore, the force said.
Staffed by a crew of 23, the ship was empty and heading to Saudi Arabia to pickup its cargo when it was approached by several unidentified small craft and a helicopter as it transited the Strait of Hormuz in international waters, according to the vessel’s owner Stena AB Group.
“We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now heading north towards Iran,” the company said in a statement, adding that there were no reports of injuries.
Tensions have been rising in the Middle East since spring, when the Trump administration ramped up sanctions to sever Iranian oil exports and force Tehran to renegotiate over its nuclear program and military activities. In turn, Iran has started enriching uranium beyond levels agreed in a 2015 accord with world powers.
Faced with intensifying U.S. sanctions, Iran has repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz if prevented from exporting its oil. Even as Washington and Tehran both insist they don’t want a war, recent skirmishes have raised fears of a miscalculation that could lead to a wider armed conflict in the Middle East.
A U.K. shipping official on Friday said British shipping authorities are investigating why the vessel changed course and headed toward the Iranian coastline. “We are aware that the vessel halted its course and is now heading toward the Iranian coast and we are investigating,” the official said.
Another British maritime official called the ship’s seizure “a worrying escalation of tension.”
The vessel had given its destination as Jubail, Saudi Arabia, yet changed course toward the Iranian coastline earlier on Friday, according to shipping-tracking site FleetMon.
FleetMon’s data shows that the tanker was in the same area where an Emirati-based vessel was detained Sunday and where a British vessel, the British Heritage, was blocked by Iranian forces earlier this month.
In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Garrett Marquis said the U.S. was aware of reports of the latest seizure.
“This is the second time in just over a week the UK has been the target of escalatory violence by the Iranian regime,” Mr. Marquis said. “The U.S. will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran’s malign behavior.”
Friday’s developments followed Iran’s rejection of the U.S. assertion that the U.S. Navy downed one of its drones in the Strait of Hormuz, a day after several close encounters between American warships and the Iranian military in the vital oil shipping route further raised tensions between the nations.
“We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else,” Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said on Twitter. “I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own [drone] by mistake!”
President Trump and senior administration officials dismissed those claims. National Security adviser John Bolton said there was “no question” that the downed drone was Iranian and was posing a threat to U.S. personnel.
A senior administration official said that the Pentagon had “very clear evidence” that the U.S. downed the Iranian drone but didn’t provide further details. A defense official said that the U.S. hadn’t recovered the drone.
Mr. Trump on Thursday said the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, took defensive action against a drone that was flying too close to it. He called the drone’s approach the latest “of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters.”
“We shot it down,” Mr. Trump said.
U.S. defense officials wouldn’t say how the Iranian drone was downed, but one official said it was an electronic measure. The U.S. Marine Corps within the past year have begun to deploy a system that can detect drones and jam the signal that connects them to their remotely located pilots, forcing them to crash.
Recent incidents have raised fears over safety in the Strait of Hormuz.
*Location reported by U.S.| †Approximate location reported by Iran | Note: other locations approximate.
Sources: Defense Department (drone); staff reports; MarineTraffic.com
The U.S. will take additional action only as a retaliatory measure, a senior administration official said Friday.
“The president has been very clear that he wants to do this through diplomatic and economic channels,” the official said. “He does not want another war in the Middle East.”
Abolfazl Shekarchi, a spokesman for Iran’s Armed Forces, was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency on Friday as saying that all Iranian drones had safely returned to their bases after carrying out their “identification and control” mission a day earlier.
Late Friday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps released footage of the USS Boxer—purportedly filmed by the drone that flew close to the U.S. ship—to prove that it had returned unharmed. The unverified video clips totalling roughly 10 minutes and posted by state TV shows what Iran says is the USS Boxer and at least three other vessels filmed from above over a period of one hour and 45 minutes. The footage didn’t show the drone returning safely to shore.
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The alleged incident occurred as the U.S. Navy sent a flotilla of warships through the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday in a show of force designed to reassure allies about American commitment to the region amid flaring tensions with Iran. The narrow channel is a key shipping route leading into the Persian Gulf, with a third of the world’s seaborne oil transported through it.
The confrontation pushed oil higher. On Friday, Brent crude, the global benchmark, was up 1.8% at $63.03 a barrel, while West Texas Intermediate futures were 1.4% higher at $56.06 a barrel.
The U.S. has blamed Iran for attacking or harassing commercial vessels in recent months, which Tehran has denied. Last week, Iranian boats tried to block a British-flagged tankerbut were turned away by a U.K. warship. Iran denied any attempt to stop the tanker. Iran also shot down a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf last month.
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Following what it said was growing Iranian threats, the U.S. boosted its military deployments to the Middle East in May, including with an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force in the Persian Gulf.
The Trump administration also in recent weeks has considered creating an international force to patrol the region’s waterways, a proposal supported by allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which export crude oil and fuel products through the strait.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, during a trip to Baghdad in May, proposed a regional nonaggression pact with Gulf Arab states, for which Russia’s foreign minister has expressed general support.
Iran in the past has harassed U.S. vessels passing through the Persian Gulf. For two years until 2017, Iranian speedboats usually crewed with Revolutionary Guards armed with .50 caliber machine guns and rocket launchers routinely darted toward U.S. vessels to within shooting distance. They also directed spotlights at American ships and aircraft. In the most tense instances, U.S. crews fired warning shots.
In 2016, two small U.S. Navy boats drifted into Iranian waters and were held captive for 15 hours before being released following phone calls between then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Zarif.
In addition to the alleged drone downing, the USS Boxer on Thursday had close encounters with an unarmed Iranian helicopter flying alongside it and an Iranian military vessel that came as near as 500 yards.