Iran captures another vessel on ‘smuggling charges’

Iranian Revolutionary Guards driving speedboats at the port of Bandar Abbas Credit: ATTA KENARE,CRAIG Z. RODARTE/AFP/Getty Images

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has seized what it claims to be a “tanker”, apparently carrying about 4,403 barrels of refined fuel to the Persian Gulf, on 31 July 2019.

Despite being denoted as a tanker by the Iranian state-run Press TV (PRESS TV), video footage shows an offshore support vessel, with transparent liquid sloshing around inside open hatches on deck. The flag is not apparent from the footage, with no further details given by Iranian authorities, leaving it open to speculationas to which country will ultimately be responsible for the vessel, and who would benefit from its cargo. According to Iran’s Sepah News, the vessel’s cargo, which was transhipped from other vessels, was confiscated and handed to Iran’s National Oil Distribution Company, with all seven crew members arrested.

Despite Iran accusations that the vessel is Iraqi, Iraq’s oil ministry has denied involvement, stating, “The ministry does not export diesel to the international market”.

At time of writing, Stena Impero – the captured British-flagged oil tanker that is understood to be a like-for-like hostage taking for Iran’s Grace 1, and which is currently being held in Gibraltar – is still being held at the port of Bandar Abbas.

In the aftermath of the arrest, John Green, director of development for the global seafarers’ charity Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea), said, “We are hugely concerned for the welfare of the crew of this ship and also the crew of the Stena Impero who are still detained. The effects of this latest seizure will not only be on this crew but also on their wives and children.”

The UK Royal Navy has sent a number of vessels to escort oil tankers through the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, making it less likely that the unidentified vessel is British-flagged. However, the UK government has admitted that there is unlikely to be enough naval presence available to protect all shipping, that tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz are still taking a risk, and that naval ships are likely limited in the action they are allowed to take in the face of a further Iranian seizures.

With one-third of world oil cargoes travelling through the Strait of Hormuz, the West is keen to ensure that the route, over which Iran retains innate geographical sovereignty as well as a hefty naval dominance, stays open. This was hampered, however, with the United States’ recent abandonment of the nuclear treaty negotiated under Barack Obama in favour of a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions under incumbent President Donald Trump, who said in June that any military conflict between the two nations would result in Iran’s “obliteration”.

Experts note that Iran has developed a specialist asymmetrical warfare capability that takes advantage of the nation’s unique geography. It is within striking range of Saudi Arabian and UAE desalination plants, which provide essential potable water to these countries. Another potential easy target is the potable water supply of the largest regional US military base, Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, with about 11,000 US military personnel.

Advice has been issued to UK-flagged, owned, and managed vessels travelling in the region, as well as advice to maintain safety and security for all merchant vessels.

Read a background to what has prompted recent issues for merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf here.