June 18, 2024
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Oil Tanker Seized Near Gulf, Diverted Towards Iran

Reports indicate that an oil tanker was seized and diverted towards Iran off the coast of Oman, raising concerns that Middle Eastern shipping threats are spreading from the Red Sea to the Gulf.

Financial Times reports that the tanker, previously embroiled in a dispute between Tehran and Washington, was captured in a raid that UK authorities said had been carried out by individuals in “military-style black uniforms”.

UK Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors shipping incidents in the region, said a vessel had been boarded by four to five “armed unauthorised persons” at 3.30 am GMT on Thursday and had subsequently lost contact. TankerTrackers, a private maritime intelligence service, identified the vessel as the St Nikolas, owned by Athens-based Empire Navigation, and said it was carrying Iraqi oil.

Transponder traffic shows the tanker was proceeding southeast along the Omani coast until 4.40am GMT, when it abruptly turned and started heading north. When it last reported its position, it was heading at 10 knots towards Bandar-e-Jask on the southern Iranian coast. While no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, TankerTrackers suggested it was likely to be Iran.

The incident will raise concerns that Tehran could threaten shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint, which lies just north of where the tanker was seized. Oil prices rose on Thursday, with Brent crude up almost 2 per cent on the day at $78 a barrel.

The St Nikolas, previously called the Suez Rajan, was seized by US authorities last year for transporting Iranian oil, sparking a retaliatory seizure by Iran of a tanker carrying Kuwaiti oil for US company Chevron.  Empire said it had settled the dispute with the US Justice Department over the vessel’s involvement in breaching US sanctions in October. The ship is a “Suezmax” tanker, the largest kind that can use the Suez Canal fully laden. Such vessels can carry up to 1mn barrels of oil.

Iranian forces have previously seized tankers during periods of heightened tension with the US and other western states. Tehran has said it has no desire to see the current conflict between Israel and Hamas escalate into a broader regional war.

But Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched more than 25 attacks on commercial shipping in the southern Red Sea since November, prompting threats of a military response by western powers.

This week they launched their biggest attack to date, targeting western warships with drones and missiles, heightening expectations of retaliation.

The assaults on shipping in one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes are part of a wider string of attacks carried out by Iran-backed militant groups since the war began.

The Biden administration has been hesitant to respond aggressively to the Houthi attacks, which have halted most container shipping in the Red Sea. Oil prices, which could be pushed upward by military action in the region, are a big concern ahead of the US presidential election in November.

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council demanded an end to attacks on ships in the Red Sea and called on the Houthis to release the Galaxy Leader, a vehicle-carrying vessel they seized and diverted in November, and its crew.

Empire Navigation said it had “lost contact” with St Nikolas at about 6.30am Athens time, while it was sailing off the coast of Oman. The ship had a crew of one Greek and 18 Filipinos.

“The vessel had loaded the previous days in Basra [in Iraq] a cargo of about 145,000 metric tonnes of crude oil destined for Aliağa [in Turkey], via the Suez Canal,” Empire added. The cargo belonged to Tüpraş, a Turkish oil group.

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