Iran Says It Seized Oil Tanker Boarded By Armed Men In Gulf Of Oman

By Peter Harrison and Dalal Awienat

Iran confirmed on Thursday that its navy seized an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman that was reported to have been boarded by armed men.

Five masked gunmen wearing black military style uniforms boarded the crude oil tanker, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO).

Iran’s state-run television acknowledged the seizure late Thursday afternoon, hours after armed men boarded it.

“The violating oil tanker Suez Rajan … stole Iranian oil by leading it to the Americans and delivered it to the Americans,” state TV said. It said Iran’s navy, rather than its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, conducted the seizure. Past tense incidents at sea have largely involved the Guard.

Earlier, the Saudi-owned news station Al Arabiya posted on claims made by Iranian state TV that it had detained an American oil tanker in the Arabian Sea, but did not name the vessel, or make reference directly to the St Nikolas.

The St. Nikolas crude oil tanker’s owners have told Arab News they lost contact with the ship early Thursday morning.

The incident was reported 50 nautical miles east of Oman’s Sohar.

Security experts say the ships tracking system has been turned off and the vessel is believed to be headed towards Iran.

A spokesperson at Empire Navigation, managers of M/T St. Nikolas, confirmed to Arab News reports that they lost contact with their vessel at approximately 06:30 a.m. Athens time (04:30 GMT) “as she was sailing off the coast of Oman, close to Sohar. The vessel is manned with total 19 crew members: 18 Filipino and one of Greek Nationality.”

“The vessel had loaded the previous days in Basrah (Iraq) a cargo of about 145,000 metric tonnes of crude oil destined to Aliaga (Turkey), via the Suez Canal. The charterer of the vessel is Tupras.”

“Empire Navigation have activated their emergency plan, notified the pertinent authorities and are making every effort to restore communication with the St.Nikolas.”

Reuters cited the US private intelligence firm Ambrey as saying the tanker’s automatic identification system had been turned off, adding that the tanker was headed in the direction of Bandar-E-Jask in Iran.

The website of the UKMTO, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, stated: “UKMTO has received a report of vessel being boarded by 4-5 armed unauthorised persons at approximately 0330UTC in an area 50NM East of Sohar, Oman.” 

“Unauthorised boarders are reported to be wearing military style black uniforms with black masks.”

“CSO reports vessel has altered course towards Iranian teritorial waters and communications with the vessel have been lost. Authorities are investigating.”

An earlier report on the site stated: “CSO reports hearing unknown voices over the phone along with the Masters voice. Unable to make further contact with vessels at this time. Authorities are investigating”.

Earlier reports advised vessels in the area to “transit with caution and report any suspicious activity to UKMTO.”

AP said that those boarding the ship had covered the surveillance cameras as they boarded.

The ongoing incident comes just a day after the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning “in the strongest terms” multiple Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea over the past two months.

The incident currently has an amber status on the UKMTO website, indicating that a “Robbery, Boarding, Suspicious approach” has taken place. A red status would signify “Attack, Hijack, Incident, Kidnap”.

Tensions have grown in the seas off the Arabian Gulf in recent days, with Yemen’s Houthi militia saying on Wednesday that it carried out a retaliation strike on the US Navy in the Red Sea with multiple missiles and drones.

On this occasion American and British navy ships shot down 21 Houthi drones.

British Defense Minister Grant Shapps said, Wednesday that the continuation of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea was “completely unacceptable”.

Shapps previously said on Jan.1 that Britain was “willing to take direct action” against Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen who have repeatedly attacked vessels in the Red Sea.

The St Nikolas is a Crude Oil Tanker that was built in 2011 and is sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands, it is associated with the Greek shipping company Empire Navigation.

Attention began focusing on the Suez Rajan in February 2022, when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker carried oil

from Iran’s Khargh Island, its main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf.

Satellite photos and shipping data analyzed at the time by the AP supported the allegation.

For months, the ship sat in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore before suddenly sailing for the Texas coast without explanation. The vessel discharged its cargo to another tanker in August, which released its oil in Houston as part of a Justice Department order.

In September, Empire Navigation pleaded guilty to smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil and agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine over a case involving the tanker when it operated under the name Suez Rajan, which carried some 1 million barrels of oil.