Iran Seizes Oil Tanker, Escalating International Tensions

Iran’s navy on January 11 captured the oil tanker that had been involved in a yearlong dispute between the United States and Iran in 2022 as it was traveling through the Gulf of Oman, the Associated Press reported.

Iranian state-run television confirmed the seizure of the vessel St. Nikolas, formally known as the Suez Rajan, just hours after it was bordered by armed men.

According to Iran’s mission to the United Nations, the navy’s seizure of the vessel did not “constitute hijacking” but was lawfully seized through a court order involving the theft of Iranian oil.

The St. Nikolas operates through the Athens-based shipping company Empire Navigation. In a statement to the Associated Press, the company acknowledged that it lost contact with the St. Nikolas but said it had no knowledge of the court order or that Iran’s navy had seized the vessel.

Empire said it had not been contacted by anyone about the vessel or its crew of 19.

The UK military’s Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors waters in the Middle East, said the seizure was launched in the early morning in the waters between Iran and Oman in the area where ships enter and leave the Strait of Hormuz.

The UK group said it received a report from the security manager aboard the St. Nikolas about “unknown voices over the phone.” Further efforts to contact the vessel failed after a group of men wearing “black military-style uniforms” and black masks boarded the vessel.

The tanker had been loading crude oil near Basra, Iraq to ship to a refinery in Aliaga, Turkey. Satellite tracking last showed the vessel turning around and heading toward the Iranian port of Bandar-e Jask.

In February 2022, the then-Suez Rajan was suspected of carrying sanctioned oil from Iran. After months of sitting off the northeast coast of Singapore in the South China Sea, the vessel set off for Texas. In August of that year, its cargo was transferred to another tanker which released the oil in Houston as part of an order from the US Department of Justice. The following month, Empire Navigation pleaded guilty to smuggling oil from Iran and agreed to pay $2.4 million.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel condemned Iran’s actions, calling it an “unlawful seizure of a commercial vessel” and demanding that Tehran release the tanker and its crew “immediately.”