DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Masked Iranian navy commandos conducted a helicopter-borne raid to seize a U.S.-bound oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, footage aired by Iran’s state television showed Friday.
The capture on Thursday of the Turkish-managed, Chinese-owned Advantage Sweet represents the latest seizure by Iran amid tensions with the U.S. over advancing nuclear program. While Tehran says the tanker was seized over it running into another Iranian vessel, it has provided no evidence yet to support the claim — and the Islamic Republic has taken other ships as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West.
The footage showed the commandos descending on the deck of the Advantage Sweet by ropes from a hovering helicopter. A photograph showed one commando with his fist in the air after apparently taking the vessel.
[COLOR=rgb(184, 49, 47)]The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet has said the Iranian seizure was at least the fifth commercial vessel taken by Tehran in the last two years.
“Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters are a threat to maritime security and the global economy,” it added.
The vessel’s manager, a Turkish firm called Advantage Tankers, issued a statement acknowledging the Advantage Sweet was “being escorted by the Iranian navy to a port on the basis of an international dispute.” All the ship’s 24 crew members are Indian.
“The safety and welfare of our valued crew members is our No. 1 priority,” the firm said. “Similar experiences show that crew members of vessels taken under such circumstances are in no danger.”
A US official said Thursday’s “seizure appears to be in retaliation for a prior US seizure of Iranian oil, which Iran recently attempted to get back but failed”.
Iran has a history of seizing tankers in retaliation for western countries targeting its crude oil shipments. In 2019, Iran seized two British-flagged tankers shortly after the UK impounded an Iranian vessel that had stopped at Gibraltar en route to Syria. Last year, Iran also took two Greek-flagged vessels in the Strait of Hormuz after Greece had allowed the US to drain the cargo of an Iranian tanker in Greek waters. The US seizure will also raise questions about whether US-linked operators were given sufficient warning of the potential increased dangers of sailing ships such as the Advantage Sweet close to Iran. The Suez Rajan’s alleged involvement in the trade in Iranian oil, which is sanctioned by the US, was revealed in February 2022 by United Against Nuclear Iran, a pressure group. The news led to a civil legal action in Manhattan by families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. In a case that remains ongoing, they sought to have the US seize the Iranian oil carried by the Suez Rajan in order to help pay compensation that a US court in 2018 had found they were owed by Iran for its role in the attacks. The US interest in the vessel arose because the ship is owned by Fleetscape, an affiliate of US-based Oaktree Capital. That contrasts with the so-called “ghost fleet” of vessels usually used to move Iranian oil. Those ships’ ownership is shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to bring claims. At the time of the 2022 claims, Fleetscape said all operational decisions were made by Empire Navigation, the vessel’s Greek operators. Fleetscape and Empire said they took the allegations “very seriously” and they were co-operating with US authorities to investigate the matter. Martin Graham, managing director at Oaktree Capital, argued that neither Fleetscape nor Oaktree had “any ownership interest whatsoever” in Suez Rajan’s cargo, according to a court filing. Since those claims were raised, the Suez Rajan has kept a low profile, largely reporting positions in shelter near Singapore since last March. Kpler, a data analytics company, has no record of it being involved in any transactions since February 2022. The ship’s transmissions give a depth in the water that imply that it has not offloaded its oil since it was accused of taking on board the Iranian crude. The Suez Rajan began its current voyage, up the Malacca Strait and then west across the Indian Ocean, on April 7. Its current location is unclear: according to Spire Global, a satellite data company, it last broadcast its position on the evening of April 22 as it was heading south-west past Madagascar towards the Cape of Good Hope.