Iran accused of using seized ships as pawns in political game

Experts say the impounding of at least one vessel is linked to dispute over payment for oil

Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in speedboats near the port of Bandar Abbas, close to where seized ships were seen on satellite images. AFP
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Iran’s seizure of two oil tankers in the Gulf centres on a political crisis that will not be resolved easily or quickly, experts have warned.

The ships have been spotted anchored off the coast of Bandar Abbas near a naval base in Iran, satellite images indicate.

Their capture comes as tensions soar between Tehran and the West over the regime's nuclear programme.

The Marshall Islands-flagged Advantage Sweet, carrying Kuwaiti crude oil bound for US energy firm Chevron Corp, was seized on April 27 in the Gulf of Oman. Iran claimed the vessel had struck another ship, a claim unverified by tracking data. The Advantage Sweet's staff comprised 23 Indians and one Russian.

Another ship, the Panama-flagged Niovi, was seized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) last Wednesday in the Strait of Hormuz. It had just left a dry dock in Dubai, bound for Fujairah on the UAE's eastern coast. While not carrying any cargo, data from S&P Global Market Intelligence showed the vessel had received oil from a ship known then as the Oman Pride in July 2020.

The US Treasury in August 2021 imposed sanctions on the Oman Pride and others associated with the vessel over its alleged involvement “in an international oil smuggling network” that supported the Quds Force, a unit of the IRGC that operates across the Middle East.

The Greek Coastguard has said the Niovi was staffed by Greek, Filipino and Sri Lankan sailors.

'Not just about oil'

John Steed, a British hostage negotiator, said such situations are “hugely complicated” and the seizures appeared to be part of a “political tit-for-tat” game between Tehran and the West.

“This is not just about oil, it’s very political,” Mr Steed told The National. “Those suffering are the sailors. Iran will not hurt the sailors but will hold the ship.

“What I am hearing is Iran is trying to exert pressure over a non-payment for oil that was exchanged between two ships,” he added.

“There will be complex discussions taking place at government level, not just at shipping industry level.

“Iran is desperate for legitimate ways to export its oil. Sanctions make it very difficult and life in Iran is pretty difficult for the people.”

Mr Steed said other shipping companies may review their policies to direct vessels away from the strategic Gulf of Oman — where the Advantage Sweet was intercepted — and the Arabian Gulf as a result of the incidents.

“It’s one of the most heavily patrolled areas in the world with large international naval contingents based in Bahrain, but when Iran does take a ship, it does so fast,” he said. “When a ship is approached by 12 Revolutionary Guard boats it makes it very difficult to [resist].”

Claire Jungman, chief of staff at the United Against a Nuclear Iran group in the US, agrees the seizure of the Niovi vessel “is related to a payment dispute for a shipment of Iranian oil”. She warned Iran “will likely hold that vessel until it receives payment”.

Ms Jungman told The National that other shipping firms might adopt a more cautious approach to the region.

“We have already seen Greece issue a series of warnings to ship owners to avoid sailing close to Iranian waters,” she said. “Similarly, the US Department of Transportation issued a warning for vessels to exercise increased caution when transiting the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.”

Chris Oliver, maritime director at the International Chamber of Shipping in London, told The National it was likely Tehran had impounded the vessels to “take a stand” in what is a political quagmire.

“This is probably a political situation and it’s possibly related to the sanctions,” he said. “I suspect the Iranians will say they have the right to do this under any law they have.

“It’s a very difficult and unfortunate situation in which actors are making a point about various political issues and ships are used as a pawn in this. We would deplore that ships are being used for political gain.

“From an optics perspective, why should these ships and seafarers be [targeted] when they are trying to do their jobs on an innocent passage? Iran is taking this action to take a stand.”

Photos from Planet Labs PBC showed the Advantage Sweet just south of Bandar Abbas near a naval base in Iran’s Hormozgan province last Saturday.

Arthur Wells, first officer at Merella Cruises, told The National that crew members on board the seized vessels must have been briefed on the dangers before being sent out on the mission in the Gulf.

Mr Wells, who previously worked in cargo shipping, said: “They would have been told about the risks. I would hope that they would have been given some sort of training to deal with such situations.”

Updated: May 09, 2023, 5:12 PM