By Mostafa Salem and Adam Pourahmadi, CNN
Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Iran has seized an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and is transferring it to an Iranian port in retaliation for the United States confiscating the same vessel and its oil last year, Tasnim News Agency reported Thursday.
The media outlet, which is associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, cited a statement from the Iranian Navy saying the seizure followed an order from an Iranian court.
“This tanker whose name was changed to St Nicholas and carrying oil in the Oman sea was seized in retaliation for the theft of oil by the American regime, with an order from the judicial courts, and is being transferred to ports of the Islamic Republic to be delivered to the judicial authorities.”
Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations said in a statement to CNN that the seizure was a “lawful undertaking sanctioned by a court order and corresponds to the theft of Iran’s very own oil.”
“Adhering to the established legal procedures is the most prudent approach for the resolution of this matter.”
United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said earlier that a vessel in the Gulf of Oman had been boarded early Thursday by at least four armed people and had diverted course toward Iranian territorial waters.
The ship’s Company Security Officer reported hearing unknown voices over the phone, after which communications with the vessel were lost, UKMTO said.
The armed “unauthorized” people who boarded the vessel were wearing military-style black uniforms with masks, the UK naval information service said.
Tensions running high
The seizure of a tanker by an armed group comes at a highly sensitive time in the region. Container shipping through the Red Sea has been throttled by attacks by Iran-backed Houthi fighters on vessels. The Houthis, based in Yemen, say they are taking revenge for Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.
The biggest container shipping companies have been forced to divert vessels around Africa, hitting trade and pushing up freight costs. Oil executives worry that the Israel-Hamas war may escalate into a regional conflict and disrupt exports of crude.
The Strait of Hormuz at the northern end of the Gulf of Oman is the biggest oil chokepoint in the world. About 20% of the world’s daily consumption of oil passes through it every day. Crude prices climbed around 3% Thursday.
A maritime monitoring website, Tanker Trackers, said the vessel seized Thursday was a Marshall Islands-flagged crude oil tanker named St Nikolas, formerly known as the Suez Rajan.
The Suez Rajan, which was at the center of a dispute between the United States and Iran, was seized by the US government last year after a court found that it was used to “covertly sell and transport Iranian oil to a customer abroad,” the US Department of Justice said in a press release.
The DOJ said “multiple entities” affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were involved in the scheme to “disguise the origin of the oil” and illegally sell it to China, according to court documents.
Almost 1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil were seized by the US government at the time, the DOJ said.
In April last year, the company operating the ship that was carrying the oil, Empire Navigation, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The Suez Rajan transported the contraband to the United States and “incurred the significant expenses associated with the vessel’s voyage to the United States,” according to the DOJ.
CNN has contacted Empire Navigation for comment.
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