Iran’s navy seized an oil tanker Thursday in the Gulf of Oman that only months earlier had seen its cargo of Iranian oil seized by the United States over sanctions linked to Tehran’s nuclear program. The incident is likely to further escalate the tensions gripping the Mideast’s waterways.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said the seizure of the ship began early in the morning in the waters between Oman and Iran in an area transited by ships coming in and out of the Strait of Hormuz. The private security firm Ambrey said that “four to five armed persons” boarded the ship, which it identified as the oil tanker St. Nikolas. It said the men covered the surveillance cameras as they boarded.
The tanker had been off the city of Basra, Iraq, loading crude oil bound for Aliaga, Turkey, for the Turkish refinery firm Tupras. Satellite-tracking data analyzed by the AP last showed the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker had turned and headed toward the port of Bandar-e Jask in Iran. The vessel was previously known as the Suez Rajan when it was involved in a yearlong dispute beginning in 2021 that ultimately saw the U.S. Justice Department seize the 1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil on it.
Iran’s state-run television acknowledged the capture of the tanker late Thursday afternoon, hours after armed men boarded it, linking it to the earlier oil seizure, claiming the capture of the vessel was not “hijacking.” The Iranian navy’s “seizure of the oil tanker does not constitute hijacking; rather, it is a lawful undertaking sanctioned by a court order and corresponds to the theft of Iran’s very own oil,” Iran’s mission to the United Nations told The Associated Press in a statement. “Adhering to the established legal procedures is the most prudent approach for the resolution of this matter.”
The St. Nikolas is operated by the Greek shipping company Empire Navigation. In a statement to the AP, the Athens-based company acknowledged losing contact with the vessel, which has a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek national. “Empire have no such knowledge of a court order or the Iranian navy having seized their vessel, and have still not been contacted by anyone,” the company said.
Since the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal, waters around the strait have seen a series of ship seizures by Iran, as well as assaults targeting shipping that the U.S. Navy has blamed on Tehran. Iran and the Navy also have had a series of tense encounters in the waterway, though recent attention has been focused on the Iranian-sponsored Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.
The seizure comes after weeks of attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea, including their largest barrage ever of drones and missiles launched late Tuesday. The Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels, locked in a 10-year civil war against the Yemeni government, say the attacks are retribution for Israel’s invasion of Gaza. However, the rebels have increasingly targeted ships with tenuous or no ties to Israel. The United Nations Security Council voted Wednesday to condemn the Houthis as American and British officials warned of the potential consequences of the attacks.
Last week, 12 other countries joined the U.S. in issuing a statement warning, “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.” An Associated Press report noted, “Tuesday’s attack appeared to be testing what response, if any, would come from Washington.”
In a post to the social media platform X Wednesday, Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) wrote, “Iran’s terrorist regime is behind everything that’s been happening in the Middle East. @WhiteHouse needs to wake up and stop appeasing terrorists.”