The seizure of an oil tanker by Iran on Thursday might have been a retaliation against a reported US seizure of an Iranian tanker, sources have told Reuters.
The US confiscated Iranian oil on a tanker at sea in recent days in a sanctions enforcement operation, three sources told Reuters, and days later Iran seized another oil-laden tanker in retaliation, according to a maritime security firm.
As oil markets remain jittery, the cargo seizure is the latest escalation between Washington and Tehran after years of sanctions pressure by the US over Iran's nuclear program. Iran does not recognize the sanctions, and its oil exports have risen since 2021, after falling sharply during the Trump administration.
Tehran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes while Washington and its allies in Europe and the region suspect Iran wants to develop a nuclear bomb.
Washington has not said anything about the tanker seizure.
Maritime security company Ambrey said the US confiscation took place at least five days before Iran's action on Thursday. "Ambrey has assessed the seizure by the Iranian Navy to be in response to the US action," it said in an advisory to clients.
"Both tankers were Suezmax-sized. Iran has previously responded tit-for-tat following seizures of Iranian oil cargo." However, the tanker Iran seized belons to a Chinese company.
The sources familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Washington took control of the oil cargo aboard the Marshall Islands tanker Suez Rajan after securing an earlier court order. The tanker's last reported position was near southern Africa on April 22, ship tracking data showed.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards boarding a Vietnamese tanker in October 2021
The vessel's Greece-based manager, Empire Navigation, and the US Department of Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment by Reuters.
The US Navy said Iran seized a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, the latest seizure or attack by Tehran on commercial vessels in sensitive Persian Gulf region .
Iranian state TV said on Friday the tanker ignored radio calls for eight hours following a collision with an Iranian boat, which left several crewmen injured and three missing. "Before using force, we tried to call the vessel ...to stop but they did not cooperate," Iranian deputy navy commander Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajodini told the broadcaster.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was aware of the Gulf of Oman seizure and reaffirmed support for international maritime law, a UN spokesperson said on Friday.
Last year the US tried to confiscate a cargo of Iranian oil near Greece, which prompted Tehran to seize two Greek tankers in the Gulf. Greece’s supreme court ordered the cargo returned to Iran. The two Greek tankers were later released.
As Iran’s oil illicit oil exports began to rise after President Joe Biden’s election in 2020, many US lawmakers began criticizing the administration for lax enforcement of sanctions. Some have accused the Biden team of having been soft on Iran with hope that negotiations to revive the JCPOA nuclear agreement would succeed.
The multilateral talks reached a deadlock last September and the US began imposing more sanctions on individuals and companies involved with Iran’s nuclear and military programs.
A bipartisan group of 12 senators on Thursday urged President Joe Biden to remove Treasury Department policy hurdles that have prevented the Department of Homeland Security from seizing Iranian oil shipments for more than a year.
In 2020, Washington confiscated four cargoes of Iranian fuel aboard foreign ships that were bound for Venezuela and transferred them with the help of undisclosed foreign partners onto two other ships which then sailed to the US.
With reporting by Reuters