Iran appears to have seized a tanker offshore Oman. Local news agencies report a court sanctioned the move.
The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said four or five armed people had boarded a vessel at 03:30 this morning. It reported the men were “wearing military style black uniforms with black masks”.
The vessel has changed course and is now heading into Iranian waters, the UKMTO said.
Iran has seized the St Nikolas, which is carrying Iraqi crude to Turkey. The vessel was previously the Suez Rajan.
The US prosecuted the vessel, and its operator Empire Navigation, for transporting Iranian crude last year. The vessel pleaded guilty in April and received three years of corporate probation and a fine of nearly $2.5 million. The US also filed to seize the cargo.
The complaint on the Suez Rajan included allegations of disguising the origin of the oil, using false AIS reporting and falsified documents.
Empire Navigation, in October, said it regretted violating US sanctions and that the transportation was an “isolated and unfortunate incident”.
Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, citing the country’s Navy, said a court order had approved the seizure. Tasnim reported that Iranian forces had seized the St Nicholas off Oman. This was in “retaliation for oil theft by the American regime, and [the vessel is] being transferred to the ports of the Islamic Republic for delivery to judicial authorities”.
Iran has faced a number of problems recently. A memorial service for Qasem Soleimani was targeted by a bomb, seemingly placed by Islamic State, killing up to 100 people. Iranian officials have also been assassinated in Syria and a cyberattack disrupted fuel stations across the country this week.
The Hamas attack on Israel, and the following attack on Gaza, has driven up tensions in the Middle East. The Houthis in Yemen, often seen as Iran backed, have increased attacks on passing ships.
UK Minister of Defence Grant Shapps said the HMS Diamond had faced the largest attack on a Royal Navy warship in “decades” in the Red Sea on January 9. The ship destroyed seven attack drones from the Houthis, he said.