DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran's navy on Thursday hijacked an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman whose cargo of Iranian oil had just months earlier been seized by the United States due to sanctions related to Tehran's nuclear program, further elevating tensions in the Middle East escalated waterways.
The ship was previously known as the Suez Rajan when it became embroiled in a years-long dispute starting in 2021 that ultimately led to the U.S. Justice Department seizing the 1 million barrels of Iranian crude.
The seizure also comes after weeks of attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels on ships in the Red Sea, including the largest-ever drone and missile barrage fired late Tuesday. U.S.-led forces launched retaliatory strikes early Friday.
Iranian state television confirmed the seizure late Thursday afternoon, hours after gunmen boarded the ship, linking it to the earlier oil seizure. It said the seizure was carried out by the Iranian navy and not the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. The guard was primarily involved in the tense incidents at sea in the past.
The Iranian Navy’s “seizure of the oil tanker does not constitute kidnapping; “Rather, it is a lawful undertaking sanctioned by a court order and amounts to the theft of Iran’s own oil,” Iran’s mission to the United Nations said in a statement to The Associated Press. “Following established legal procedures is the most prudent approach to resolving this matter.”
The St. Nikolas was formerly called Suez Rajan and was affiliated with the Greek shipping company Empire Navigation. In a statement to the AP, Athens-based Empire Navigation admitted it had lost contact with the ship, which has a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek national.
“Empire has no knowledge of any court order or seizure of its vessel by the Iranian Navy and has still not been contacted by anyone,” the company said.
The British military's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is warning sailors in the Middle East, said the seizure began in the early hours of Thursday in the waters between Oman and Iran in an area traversed by ships traveling in the Entering and leaving the Strait of Hormuz. the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf, through which a fifth of all traded oil flows.
The British military-led group described receiving a report from the ship's security manager saying they had heard “unknown voices on the telephone” along with the ship's captain. It said further attempts to contact the ship had failed and that the men who boarded the ship were wearing “black military-style uniforms with black masks.”
Private security firm Ambrey said “four to five armed people” boarded the ship, which it identified as the oil tanker St. Nikolas” identified. It was said that the men covered the surveillance cameras when they got in.
The tanker had been traveling off the city of Basra in Iraq and was loading crude oil for the Turkish refinery Tupras to Aliaga in Turkey. Satellite tracking data analyzed by the AP most recently showed that the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker had turned around and headed toward the port of Bandar-e Jask in Iran.
Attention first turned to the Suez Rajan when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker was carrying oil from Iran's Khargh island, the main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf. Satellite photos and shipping data analyzed by the AP at the time supported the claim.
The ship sat in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore for months before suddenly sailing toward the Texas coast without explanation. The ship unloaded its cargo in August onto another tanker, which released its oil in Houston under a Justice Department order.
In September, Empire Navigation pleaded guilty to smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil and agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine in the tanker case.
From Washington, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel condemned Iran's seizure of the ship.
“The Iranian government must immediately release the ship and its crew,” Patel said. “This unlawful seizure of a commercial vessel is just the latest behavior by Iran – or that it has enabled – aimed at disrupting international trade.”
After the ship, the then Suez Rajan, headed for America, Iran seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one carrying cargo for major U.S. oil company Chevron Corp. In July, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard's navy threatened further action against anyone who unloaded the Suez Rajan, with state media linking recent seizures to the cargo's fate.
Since the collapse of the Iranian nuclear deal, there have been a number of ship seizures by Iran in the waters around the strait as well as attacks on ships that the US Navy blames on Tehran. Iran and the Navy have also had a series of tense encounters in the waterway, with attention recently focused on Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.
The US and its allies have also been seizing Iranian oil cargoes since 2019 to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. This has led to a series of attacks in the Middle East attributed to the Islamic Republic, as well as ship seizures by Iranian military and paramilitary forces, endangering global shipping.
The Houthis say their attacks are aimed at halting the suffering of Palestinians in Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, the rebels have increasingly targeted ships that have little or no ties to Israel.
Meanwhile, satellite tracking data analyzed by the AP on Thursday showed that an Iranian cargo ship suspected of being a spy platform in the Red Sea had left the waterway. The data showed that the Behshad had entered the Gulf of Aden through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
The Behshad has been in the Red Sea off Eritrea's Dahlak Archipelago since 2021. It arrived there after Iran removed the Saviz, another suspected spy base in the Red Sea that was damaged in an attack that analysts attributed to Israel, amid a larger shadow war of ship attacks in the region.
Associated Press journalist Amir Vahdat in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.