Intel: Iran’s navy boards oil tanker near Strait of Hormuz, US says

al-monitor A video captured the moment an Iranian Sea King helicopter hovered above the MT Wila and armed Iranian personnel fast-roped aboard the ship near the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports indicate two Iranian ships in the vicinity of the incident. Photo by US Navy.

Aug 13, 2020

Iran’s navy temporarily seized control of a Liberian-flagged oil tanker in what the United States said were international waters near the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday.

The US-led maritime security coalition in the Gulf released photos of Iran forces fast-roping to the deck of the ship, known as the MT Wila, from what appears to be an Iranian Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King helicopter.

Another photo depicts what appears to be an Iranian Hendjian-class support vessel approaching the Wila from the port side. US Central Command released grainy footage of the seizure, apparently taken from the same coalition ship, which remained nearby on “overwatch,” the coalition said in a statement

A spokesperson for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet did not offer an explanation as to why Iranian forces would seize control of the vessel. The Wila issued no distress calls to other ships in the area, the coalition said. The ship was later released.

The Wila was previously moored off Iraq before moving to a port in the United Arab Emirates, The Associated Press reported.

A representative for Greece-based IMS SA, the parent company that owns the ship, did not return a request for comment.

Why it matters: The United States and Iran have had a number of heated run-ins near the Strait of Hormuz as Iran has increasingly targeted shipping over the past year. The strategic waters funnel about 20% of all global oil traded, or roughly $1.2 billion worth of oil, daily. The Trump administration has sought to isolate Iran economically and prevent it from exporting oil abroad in a bid to coerce officials in Tehran back to the table to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States pulled out of unilaterally in 2018.

Last month, the captain of a crude oil tanker — which had disappeared from port in the United Arab Emirates and later turned up near Iran’s coast — said the ship had been hijacked, AP first reported. The vessel, the Gulf Sky, had been abandoned by its crew months earlier after US sanctions targeted its Iranian owners. The United States had accused the ship’s owners of purchasing the tanker on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iranian forces may have attempted to divert two other vessels passing through the strait over the past week, according to Dryad Global. On Saturday, the route of one ship headed toward Khafji, Saudi Arabia made an irregular turn north and sailed into Iranian waters before abruptly turning southwest and resuming course. Three days later, a second vessel was seen making an irregular turn north and drifted into Iranian waters for about six hours before resuming its course toward Jubail, Saudi Arabia. 

The United States accused Iran of sabotaging two tankers last year in the Gulf with explosive limpet mines.

What’s next: The US-led maritime coalition is calling on Iran to explain its legal reasoning for boarding the MT Wila. So far, Iranian state media has not reported on the incident. 

Know more: Al-Monitor has reported on prior mysterious petroleum tanker incidents near the Strait of Hormuz, including the disappearance of the Gulf Sky.

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