The Iranian navy boarded and briefly seized a Liberian-flagged oil tanker near the strategic Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the U.S., a U.S. military official said Thursday.
The U.S. military’s Central Command published a black-and-white video showing what appeared to be special forces fast-roping down from a helicopter onto the MV Wila, whose last position seemed to be off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates near the city of Khorfakkan.
The Iranian navy held the vessel for some five hours before releasing it Wednesday, said a U.S. military official who spoke to The Associated Press on anonymity to discuss details not yet made public. The Wila made no distress calls before, during, and after the seizure, the official said.
Today in international waters, Iranian forces, including two ships and an Iranian “Sea King” helicopter, overtook and boarded a ship called the ‘Wila.’ pic.twitter.com/455UQ5jwHT
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) August 12, 2020
The Wila was in the Gulf of Oman and around 20 miles from the United Arab Emirates, said the official. It passed through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical choke-point that borders Iran and accounts for about one-third of the world’s seaborne oil flows, on July 16, according to ship-tracking data.
While Iran regularly intercepts ships it alleges have entered its waters or are illegally smuggling fuel, the incident comes as U.S. President Donald Trump looks to tighten United Nations sanctions on the Islamic Republic and renew an arms embargo.
“Maritime harassments are the only stick with which Iran can beat its opponents,” said Munro Anderson, a partner at maritime security firm Dryad Global. “It has few levers of influence and treads a fine line when it antagonizes states in the region and the U.S.”
The U.S. military was only involved in monitoring and did not receive a distress call. U.S. Central Command tweeted footage of the event on Wednesday.
The White House and National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did officials in Iran during the country’s weekend on Thursday.
Wila has been floating off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates for about a month and is now near Khor Fakkan port, according to the ship-tracking data. The vessel’s previous stop was around July 8, near the Iraqi oil terminal of Basra. There, its draft increased, indicating it picked up a shipment.
With a capacity of about 50,000 barrels, the Wila is small compared with the tankers that ship Middle Eastern crude. Those can usually hold as much as 2 million barrels.
Michelle Wiese Bockmann, a maritime expert, wrote that the vessel is linked to Greek owners and sailing under a Liberian flag.
Plenty of geopolitical intrigue if reports that #Iran has boarded the 8,000 dwt tanker Wila off UAE are confirmed. Liberia-flagged, US company does P&I, Russian-built, Russian-classed, UAE beneficial owner, with Greek ISM manager (@LLIntelligence). Here’s a basic overview pic.twitter.com/7ZrrqjaYZX
— Michelle Wiese Bockmann (@Michellewb_) August 12, 2020
The U.S. military officials did not offer any reason for Iran seizing the vessel. Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge the seizure or provide a reason for it.
Officials in the UAE, a U.S.-allied federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, did not respond to a comment request. The Wila’s registered owner is a Liberian firm called Bandit Shipping Co., managed by Greek firm IMS SA, according to United Nations records. Neither firm could be immediately reached.
Private maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global said it suspected two other ships had been harassed by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in the Persian Gulf over the last week as well, based on the ships’ behavior.
As tensions between Iran and the U.S. heated up last year over America’s unilateral withdraw from its 2015 nuclear deal, tankers plying the Mideast waters became targets, particularly near the strait, the Persian Gulf’s narrow mouth. Suspected limpet mine attacks the U.S. blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.
In July, a U.S.-sought oil tanker was “hijacked” off the United Arab Emirates coast after allegedly smuggling Iranian crude oil. The vessel later ended up back in Iranian waters, suggesting Iran itself seized the ship.