Foreign Minister: Detained crew not Malaysians

Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin at a press conference. Credit: AP

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has clarified that 16 seafarers detained by Iranian authorities for alleged fuel smuggling are not Malaysians, contrary to earlier media reports.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had, on 30 December 2019, detained a tanker for allegedly smuggling marine fuels, together with the 16 crew members on board and its cargo of 1.3 million litres of fuel oil. At the time, the tanker was in the Strait of Hormuz, en route to Sharjah.

Saifuddin added that the tanker is neither Malaysia-flagged nor owned by a Malaysian company.

IHS Markit’s AISLive data indicates that the vessel is First Lady, a 1984-built 3,000 dwt bunker tanker.

“None of the 16 men are Malaysians, the ship is not registered in Malaysia and is not owned by a Malaysian,” said the minister, who was speaking to journalists.

Saifuddin said that Iran’s Foreign Ministry had communicated with the Malaysian Embassy in Tehran.

However, SAS communications with First Lady’s P&I club, Shipowners’ Mutual, showed that the tanker is owned by Zengo Corporation, a Malaysian physical bunker and lubricants supplier.

Attempts to contact Zengo Corporation for comments were unsuccessful. Amid growing tensions with the US, Iran has detained several ships over accusations of fuel smuggling.

On 19 July 2019, Tehran seized the UK-flagged Swedish-owned products tanker Stena Impero and an 1,800 dwt Iraqi product tanker, Riah. The capture of Stena Impero was widely seen as retaliation for the seizure of the NITC VLCC Grace 1 (since renamed Adrian Darya 1) in Gibraltar on 4 July 2019 for carrying oil to Syria. The NITC tanker was eventually freed on 18 August 2019.

On 25 September 2019, Stena Impero was freed. But Iran continued to target international shipping., In September 2019, two more ships were seized over accusations of smuggling more than 500,000 litres of diesel.

The US think tank Center for a New American Security said that Iran’s harassment of ships around the Strait of Hormuz is likely an action to put pressure on the US to lift its sanctions against Iran. The sanctions target Iran’s production of nuclear weapons.

The situation is unlikely to improve, following the US-instigated assassination of Iran’s top military man, Qassem Soleimani, in a raid at Baghdad Airport on 3 January 2020.