Iran Holds Up 2nd British-Linked Oil Tanker in Gulf on Same Day, Later Releases It

July 19, 2019 Updated: July 21, 2019

Iran held up a second oil tanker, the Liberian-flagged, British-operated vessel Mesdar, near the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.

The move came less than an hour after Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Imperio, in the same area.

The Liberian-flagged Mesdar was later allowed to continue its course after being warned over safety and environmental issues, and being told to comply with environmental regulations, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

Norbulk, the manager of the Mesdar, said the vessel was boarded by armed personnel but was later allowed to continue its voyage. It added that the crew were safe and well.

“These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region,” British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said of both incidents on July 19.

“We will respond in a way that is considered but robust, and we are absolutely clear that if this situation is not resolved quickly, there will be serious consequences,” Hunt later told reporters.

He added that Britain was “not looking at military options.”

“We are looking at a diplomatic way to resolve the situation,” he said.

President Donald Trump said he would be discussing the issue with Britain.

“This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran: Trouble, nothing but trouble,” he told reporters at the White House.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump at an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on July 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Central Command said the United States has since intensified air patrols over the Strait of Hormuz in response to the latest seizures. Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a Central Command spokesman, said a number of extra patrol aircraft are flying in international airspace to monitor the situation, The Associated Press reported.

Iranian Tanker

The seizures come two weeks after the British navy seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar on July 4. Iran’s Grace 1 tanker was believed to have been breaching European Union sanctions by smuggling oil to Syria. But Iran denies that allegation and has repeatedly called for the ship’s release.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on July 16 that Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the Grace 1 tanker seizure.

On July 19, tracking data for the Stena Impero and Mesdar revealed that the vessels suddenly changed direction shortly after entering the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. The Mesdar was originally heading toward the Saudi port of Ras Tanura until it sharply turned to take up a new course heading toward Iran before its tracking signal went out, the data from global data provider Refinitiv showed.

Two hours later, the tracking signal was turned back on to reveal that the Mesdar was now headed westward away from Iran. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency then tweeted that the Mesdar had left Iran’s territorial waters.

British oil tanker Stena Imperio
The British oil tanker Stena Imperio at an unknown location on May 5, 2019. (Basil M. Karatzas, Karatzas Images via AP)

Tracking data for the Swedish-owned Stena Impero showed that it also went off course at about 15:17 GMT, also headed for Iran away from its destination at the Saudi port of Jubail.

British Ship ‘Remains Uncontactable’

According to Reuters, on July 19 Iran’s state television reported a statement by the Islamic regime’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). The IRGC said that it had captured the Stena Impero at the request of Iranian authorities for “not following international maritime regulations.”

Tasnim reported that the Stena Impero had been causing pollution by dumping oil residue.

Allahmorad Afifipour, head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, reportedly told Tasnim: “We received reports that the British Stena Impero oil tanker was causing incidents and, therefore, we asked the military to direct it to Bandar Abbas port for the necessary probes.”

The official IRNA news agency reported that an Iranian military source said the Stena Impero “had turned off its tracker and ignored several warnings by the Guards before being captured.”

Reuters also reported that Afifipour told Fars news agency that Stena Impero was in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat.

“It got involved in an accident with an Iranian fishing boat… When the boat sent a distress call, the British-flagged ship ignored it,” Afifipour said according to Fars. “The tanker is now at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port and all its 23 crew members will remain on the ship until the probe is over.”

But the vessel’s owner, Stena Bulk, and ship manager, Northern Marine Management, in their latest statement said that the Stena Imperio was “in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations.”

The Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk
An undated handout photo shows the Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, at an undisclosed location, obtained by Reuters on July 19, 2019. (Stena Bulk/via Reuters)

The two companies had confirmed the Stena Imperio’s seizure in an earlier joint statement.

“Soon after the vessel was approached by unidentified small naval craft and a helicopter during her transit of the Strait of Hormuz in international waters at approximate 1600 hrs BST today, the vessel suddenly deviated from her passage to Jubail and headed north towards Iran,” the two companies stated.

“There are 23 seafarers onboard of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationality,” Erik Hanell, President and Chief Executive of Stena Bulk, said in the statement. “There have been no reported injuries and the safety and welfare of our crew remain our primary focus.”

“We are in close contact with both the UK and Swedish government authorities to resolve this situation and we are liaising closely with our seafarers’ families.”

Their latest statement said that the vessel “is no longer under the control of the crew and remains uncontactable.”

Drone Taken Down

Just a day before, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. Navy took down an Iranian drone near the Strait of Hormuz.

“The Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone, which had closed into a near distance, approximately 1,000 yards,” Trump said July 18 about the incident in the strait that lies between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.

The president was referring to the USS Boxer—an amphibious assault ship.

USS Boxer (LHD-4) ship sails in the Arabian Sea off Oman
USS Boxer (LHD-4) ship sails in the Arabian Sea off Oman July 17, 2019. The picture was taken on July 17, 2019. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
US Iran
Amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) transits the San Diego Bay on May 1, 2019. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse Monford)

The Associated Press reported that the six attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz in recent weeks signal a deterioration in maritime security. The report also said the United States has blamed Iran for the attacks. Iran has denied the allegations.

Tensions between Iran and the United States, along with U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, have risen ever since Washington pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The Obama administration said the deal between Iran and global powers would help curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump has been increasing pressure on Iran’s leaders since May 2018 after quitting from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing tight sanctions on Iran lifted as a part of the Obama deal. The sanctions are an effort to force the Islamic regime to change a plethora of activities the administration finds unacceptable.

“We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction,” Trump said at the time. “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail.”

The administration demands that Iran stops not only its nuclear technology development but also its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorists and militias in the region, and other destabilizing activities.

In April, Trump announced he would designate Iran’s IRGC a foreign terrorist organization. The IRGC is a branch of the Iranian military controlled by the regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei. The branch does not respond to the country’s quasi-democratically elected government.

While Iran says its missile program is defensive only, it has repeatedly threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation to the United States’ sanctions.

The Strait of Hormuz is a major chokepoint through which about a fifth of all oil consumed globally passes through. It is located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Jack Phillips, Petr Svab, The Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report

Follow Mimi on Twitter: @MimiNguyenLy
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