Iranian special forces, Takavaran. Wikipedia

Oil wars: Iran responds to British seizure of oil tanker

When the British military seized an Iranian oil tanker, its Marine commandos came on board the vessel by helicopter. Iran has now demonstrated that it can act on the same operational level as Britain, says a military analyst.

Published: July 21, 2019, 10:28 am

    In July, the UK seized an Iranian tanker the Grace 1 near Gibraltar, together with its load of 2 million barrels of oil. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps then threatened to take similar measures against British ships.

    Gibraltar announced that it would hold the Grace 1 for another month, but according to military analyst and blogger Moon of Alabama, such plans may soon change because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has in turn seized a British tanker, the Stena Impero, on its way from Fujairah, UAE to Jubail in Saudi Arabia.

    The blogger has tracked the movements of the vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, revealing how the British ship was approached by IRGC fast boots. The ship made a sharp turn south towards Oman but could not outrun the IRGC boats.

    The vessel was then forced to slow down, made a sharp 180 degree turn, heading north and is now in Iranian waters. The last Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal it emitted, was received at about 17:30 UTC.

    “The Stena Impero, IMO 9797400, is a British flagged oil products and chemical tanker. Built in 2018 it has a deadweight tonnage of 49 682 metric tons. The owner is Stena Bulk XIII Cyprus Limited, which is likely controlled by the Swedish company Stena Bulk AB in Goteborg, Sweden. The operator is Northern Marine Ltd in Glasgow, Scotland. The ship sails under the British flag,” the blogger noted.

    American efforts to set up military escorts for ships in the Strait of Hormuz, however, have not been welcomed with much enthusiasm.

    Reuters reported that the United States was “struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran”. At least six sources familiar with the matter confirmed the hesitation on the part of US allies.

    “The Americans want to create an ‘alliance of the willing’ who confront future attacks,” said a Western diplomat, but “nobody wants to be on that confrontational course and part of a US push against Iran”.

    Escorting every commercial vessel is not an option since the Strait is already too crowded. An Asian official also noted that it would be impossible because the Strait is only 33 km wide at its narrowest point.

    The IRGC has confirmed that it seized the ship in response to the British move in Gibraltar. It announced in statement that the British oil tanker had violated the international maritime regulations when crossing the Strait of Hormuz.

    The UK oil tanker has been seized by the IRGC Navy forces in the first naval zone at the request of the Ports and Maritime Organization of Iran at the province of Hormozgan, the statement said.

    The British vessel will face legal and judicial processes, it added.

    According to Iran, the Stena Impero was accompanied by a British military ship. Despite that, the IRGC forces boarded the tanker by roping down from a hovering helicopter.

    A video released by the IRGC shows their troops conducting an airlanding on one of the seized British oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz waters on Friday.

    The footage was taken from inside the helicopter as well as from other boats, showing the boarding operation. The capture by the Iranians was too fast for the British military ship to react.

    On July 10, another British ship had turned off its transponders for almost 24 hours, making it undetectable by radars, according to a report from CNN. It was escorted by the HMS Montrose in the Strait.

    “Turning of the AIS in a high traffic area and especially at night is quite dangerous,” the analyst noted and ships on the radar screen without AIS information are regarded as suspicious.

    “To me it seems that the empty British crude carrier, which was shadowed by a British frigate, was used as bait. There were probably Royal Marines on board waiting for an Iranian attempt to seize the ship. Iran did not fall for it,” the blogger pointed out.

    The Grace 1 was carrying Iranian crude oil allegedly to Syria, and the ship had planned to receive provisions in Gibraltar, a British controlled enclave. Surprisingly, the enclave changed its local regulations only a day before the Iranian ship arrived.

    “The new regulation, introduced on July 3, allows Gibraltar to designate and detain ‘specified ships’ for up to 72 hours if the chief minister has reasonable grounds to suspect a breach of EU regulations. Crucially, Grace 1 can be held until any other legal proceedings in other jurisdictions against the owners of the cargo or tanker are settled. The seizure has triggered a diplomatic row between the UK and Iran, amid claims the detention was done at the behest of the US.”

    Tomasz Wlostowski, a lawyer specialized in EU regulatory affairs, found no legal base in EU sanctions law and regulations to confiscate the tanker however.

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