Iran seizes an oil tanker, but whose tanker is disputed

US and Iranian officials both said Wednesday that Iran had seized an oil tanker in the Sea of Oman last month after an encounter with the US Navy, but the two sides gave widely differing accounts of whose tanker it was and what, exactly, had happened.

Farnaz Fassihi and Eric SchmittThe New York Times
Published : 4 Nov 2021, 05:06 AM
Updated : 4 Nov 2021, 05:06 AM

Iranian officials said the United States had seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil on Oct 24 and that an assault by Iranian commandos had taken the tanker back.

A statement by Iran's Revolutionary Guard said that “the brave IRGC naval unit landed on the tanker that had the stolen oil, seized it and brought it back to Iranian waters.”

Two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments, said that Iran had seized a Vietnamese-flagged tanker, the MV Southys.

A US Navy destroyer, USS The Sullivans, arrived to monitor the seizure but took no action and was not threatened by approaching Iranian speedboats, one of the officials said.

John F Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, denied Iran’s allegations that the United States had seized the merchant vessel, whose nationality he declined to identify.

“It’s a ridiculous claim,” he told reporters in Washington. “It’s absolutely not true. And I would add that Iran’s actions, the ones that are true of them, illegally boarding and seizing a merchant vessel, constitute a blatant violation of international law.”

Reports on social media accounts affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard gave yet another version of the story, the latest episode in a long-running tit-for-tat series of maritime skirmishes between Iran and the West. This version of events was endorsed by two Iranians with knowledge of the incident.

They said the seized tanker was one of four tankers carrying Iranian oil to Venezuela that had been seized by the United States in the Atlantic Ocean in August of last year.

Iranian officials, they said, had been waiting ever since for the tanker to come near its shores to take it back.

“Now the tanker with the same captain & crew & under US military protection has been seized by the IRGC Navy,” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran-based analyst close to the government, said in a tweet.

An Iranian oil dealer with knowledge of the incident confirmed that account. He said Iran had retaliated to demonstrate that seizing its oil in international waters would not go unanswered.

Similarly, Iran seized a British tanker in 2019 in response to the confiscation of an Iranian oil tanker by British forces near Gibraltar.

The ship seized last month was being held at Bandar Abbas and the crew was in custody, Iran’s state media said.

A Pentagon spokesman rejected the claim that the tanker was one that had been seized by the United States last year.

“The vessel at the centre of the 24 Oct seizure by Iranian forces was NOT one involved in the Iran-Venezuela situation 8 months ago,” Maj Rob Lodewick said in an email.

A person who answered the phone at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

It was unclear why the seizure of the tanker was just coming to light on Wednesday.

The United States had not publicized the event, one US official said, because of current diplomatic sensitivities with Iran.

“If you’re asking me, why am I talking about this today, because the Iranians lied about it today,” Kirby said. “But we monitor maritime traffic every day out there, and not all of it rises to the level of us putting out a press release.”

Indirect talks between the United States and Iran over resurrecting the 2015 nuclear agreement have been stalled for months.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that the talks would resume on Nov. 29 in Vienna.

Iran may have announced the seizure Wednesday, and played up the ostensible confrontation with the Americans, because it was the day before the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 Iranian takeover of the US Embassy, an event that Iran celebrates annually with pomp and ceremony.

Iran’s state media cast the tanker incident as a bravura action by the Revolutionary Guard special forces, which chased US warships away by “locking on missiles” at the ship and warning its crew to leave the area or face military confrontation.

A dramatic video broadcast on state television, ostensibly of the Oct 24 seizure, showed Iranian commandos boarding a helicopter and landing on a tanker with machine guns pointed at the crew. Several speedboats circled the tanker and a voice in English warned a US ship to leave the area.

One of the US officials dismissed that account, saying that some Revolutionary Guard speedboats approached The Sullivans but were not threatening. He described it as just some “sporty activity” between the Guard and the Navy ship.

Separately, a US official said Wednesday that multiple drones, believed to be Iranian, had “unsafe and unprofessional interaction” with the USS Essex aircraft carrier as the vessel left the Strait of Hormuz within the past 24 hours.

The drones flew close to the Essex, interfering with the ship’s flight operations and prompting it to take defensive measures, defusing the encounter, the official said.

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