Iran seizes Gulf oil tanker in new threat to Middle East shipping

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An oil tanker linked to a dispute between Iran and the US has been seized off the coast of Oman, in a raid UK maritime authorities said was carried out by individuals in black military-style uniforms.

The seizure of the tanker suggests that threats to shipping in the Middle East, already at their highest level in decades, could be spreading from the Red Sea to the Gulf.

Iranian 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.

The Houthi assaults on shipping are part of a wider string of attacks carried out by Iranian-backed militant groups since the war between Israel and Hamas erupted.

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 3:30am GMT on Thursday, adding they were reported to be “wearing military-style black uniforms”. It said they had lost contact with the vessel. 

No group claimed responsibility for the attack. The Houthis, who control northern Yemen, have previously taken credit for their assaults on merchant shipping in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes.

Tanker Trackers, a private maritime intelligence service, said identified the tanker as the St Nikolas and was carrying Iraqi oil. The location of the boarding, in an area between Oman and Iran, suggests Iranian forces were responsible.

The vessel, 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 Navigation, the Athens-based owner of the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker, said it had “lost contact” with the vessel at around 6.30am Athens time, while it was sailing off the coast of Oman. The ship had a crew of one Greek and 18 Filipino members.

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

Empire said in October it had settled a dispute with the US justice department over the vessel’s involvement in breaching the US’s sanctions regime.

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.

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 ship they seized and diverted in November, and its crew.