Iran’s military seized a British tanker in the Persian Gulf on Friday, further ratcheting up the tensions between Tehran and Western powers in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced via state-run news outlets that it had seized the British tanker Stena Impero “for failing to respect international maritime rules.”
The seizure comes as an apparent response to Britain’s detention of an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in early July and comes on the heels of a series of alleged Iranian attacks on Japanese, European, and Middle Eastern tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
British officials told reporters that they are “urgently seeking further information and assessing the situation.” A British official told The Daily Beast that the incident is currently being discussed at the highest levels of the British government.
Separately, Defense Department officials confirmed to CNN that Iran had captured a second tanker on Friday, the MV Mesdar, a Liberian-flagged vessel.
Before Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the seizure on Friday, vessel tracking data showed the Stena Impero diverting off course and towards the Iranian island of Qeshm, home to a number of IRGC-N facilities. A statement posted to the website of Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management, the ship’s owner, said the Stena Impero “was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit of the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters.” The company said there are 23 crew members aboard the ship at present.
Earlier this week, Iran announced that it had seized another tanker, the MT Riah, after it disappeared and was last seen heading towards Qeshm. The Riah had been owned by a United Arab Emirates company but Emirati officials denied that the Riah was owned or operated by Emirati entities. Iranian officials claimed to have seized the vessel after it allegedly engaged in oil smuggling.
The British tanker incident follows a series of Iranian threats to retaliate against the U.K. for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in early July. Royal Marines boarded the Grace 1 tanker on the grounds that it was allegedly delivering oil to the Assad regime in violation of European Union sanctions. Iran denied that the tanker was headed for Syria and demanded its release. A Gibraltar court ruled on Friday that the ship must stay detained for at least another month.
In the wake of the seizure, senior Iranian military and political officials vowed retaliation against the U.K. for taking the Grace 1. Iran’s top military officer, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri said the British seizure “will not go unanswered” and that Iran would respond “at an appropriate time and place.” President Hassan Rouhani also threatened that the U.K. “will realize the consequences later” for its actions.
On Wednesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei renewed the threats and said Iran “will not leave such evil deeds unanswered.”
Iran appeared to try and make good on those threats in early July when IRGC Navy (IRGC-N) vessels harassed a BP tanker, British Heritage, as it sailed by the Iranian island of Abu Musa. IRGC-N boats tried to stop the tanker before a British Navy frigate, HMS Montrose, trained its guns on the boats and ordered them to move away. Before the incident, the British Heritage had anchored off the coast of Saudi Arabia, wary of sailing the Gulf in light of Iranian threats to British shipping.
Those anxieties are shared among British shippers who have watched the escalating tensions between the U.K. and Iran with concern. Britain’s department of transport raised its threat level for vessels in the Gulf to “critical” while maritime organizations have urged shippers not to escalate the threat by hiring armed private security contractors to guard their ships.
The U.K. announced earlier this week that it would send an additional warship to the Gulf, the HMS Duncan, a guided missile destroyer, to provide security for its vessels.
In May, following the announcement of an expedited deployment of U.S. warships and bombers to the Gulf, six tankers were attacked by apparent limpet mines in two separate incidents off the coast of the United Arab Emirates Fujairah port and in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. blamed Iran naval commandos for both attacks and released footage of Iranian troops removing a device from the hull of a ship that had recently been attacked.