The Iranian Navy seizes an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman that was at the heart of a major crisis between the United States and Iran

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Iranian Navy seized an oil tanker Thursday in the Gulf of Oman, which only months ago saw its cargo of Iranian oil seized by the United States due to sanctions linked to Tehran's nuclear program, further escalating tensions sweeping the Middle East. Waterways.

The ship was previously known as the Swiss Rajan when it was embroiled in a year-long dispute starting in 2021, which eventually saw the US Department of Justice obtain 1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil on it.

The seizure also comes after weeks of attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels on ships in the Red Sea, including the largest ever barrage of drones and missiles launched late Tuesday. US-led forces launched retaliatory strikes early Friday.

Iranian state-run television acknowledged the oil seizure late Thursday afternoon, hours after gunmen boarded it and linked it to the previous oil seizure. She added that the Iranian Navy, not the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, carried out the seizure. The Revolutionary Guard has been largely involved in past incidents of tension at sea.

“The Iranian Navy’s seizure of the oil tanker does not constitute a hijacking; Rather, it is a legal undertaking punishable by a court order and consistent with the theft of Iranian oil.” He added: “Adhering to established legal procedures is the most prudent approach to resolving this matter.”

The ship St. Nicholas was previously named Suez Rajan, and is associated with the Greek shipping company Empire Navigation. In a statement to the Associated Press, Empire Navigation, based in Athens, acknowledged losing contact with the ship, which has a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek national.

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The company said: “Empire has no knowledge of a court order or that the Iranian Navy has seized its ship, and no one has contacted it yet.”

The British Army's British Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Middle East, said Thursday's seizure began early in the morning in the waters between Oman and Iran in an area transited by ships coming in and out of the Strait of Hormuz. The narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of the oil traded passes.

The British Army-run group described receiving a report from the ship's security director about hearing “unidentified voices on the phone” along with the ship's captain. She said further efforts to contact the ship were unsuccessful and that the men who boarded the ship were wearing “black military uniforms and black masks.”

Private security company Ambrey said “four to five armed men” boarded the vessel, which it said was the oil tanker St. Nicholas. She added that the men covered the surveillance cameras as they ascended.

The tanker was off the city of Basra, Iraq, to ​​load crude oil bound for Aliaga, Turkey, for the Turkish refining company Tupras. Satellite tracking data analyzed by the Associated Press last showed that the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker had turned around and headed toward the port of Bandar Jask in Iran.

Attention began to focus on the Suez Rajan Canal in February 2022, when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker was carrying oil from Iran's Kharg Island, a major oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf. Satellite images and shipping data analyzed at the time by AP supported this claim.

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The ship remained for several months in the South China Sea off the northeastern coast of Singapore before suddenly sailing to the Texas coast without explanation. The ship unloaded 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 in a case involving the tanker.

From Washington, Foreign Ministry spokesman Vedant Patel condemned Iran's seizure of the ship.

“The Iranian government must immediately release the ship and its crew,” Patel said. “This illegal seizure of a commercial vessel is just the latest behavior by Iran – or enabled by Iran – aimed at disrupting international trade.”

After the ship, “Suez Ragan” at the time, headed to America, Iran seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one carrying a cargo for the major American oil company, Chevron Corp. In July, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC's naval arm threatened further action. Against anyone unloading the cargo of the Suez Rajan ship, as state media linked the recent seizures to the fate of the cargo.

Since the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, the waters surrounding the strait have seen a series of ship seizures by Iran, as well as attacks targeting ships that the US Navy has blamed on Tehran. Iran and the navy have also engaged in a series of tense confrontations in the waterway, although recent attention has focused on Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

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The United States and its allies have also seized Iranian oil shipments since 2019 to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. This has led to a series of attacks in the Middle East attributed to the Islamic Republic, as well as the seizure of ships by Iranian military and paramilitary forces that threaten global shipping.

The Houthis say their attacks aim to stop the suffering of Palestinians in the Israeli war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, the rebels have increasingly targeted ships with weak or no ties to Israel.

Meanwhile, satellite tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press on Thursday showed that an Iranian cargo ship suspected of being a spy platform in the Red Sea had left the waterway. The data showed that Behshad crossed the Bab al-Mandab Strait into the Gulf of Aden.

Behshad has been present in the Red Sea since 2021, off the Eritrean Dahlak Archipelago. It arrived there after Iran removed Saviz, another suspected spy base in the Red Sea that was damaged in an attack that analysts attributed to Israel amid a broader shadow war of ship attacks in the region.

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Associated Press journalist Amir Wahda in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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