An Iranian special forces team boarded and seized a Liberian tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates for about five hours on Wednesday. The action by Iranian forces drew swift condemnation from the U.S.-led collation created to deter harassment of merchant ships in and out of the Persian Gulf.
Flying from an Iranian Navy SH-3 Sea King, the team fast roped aboard the deck of M/T Wila at around 8:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday, according to a video released by U.S. Central Command from a ship participating in Operation Sentinel.
“A video captured the moment an Iranian Sea King helicopter hovered above M/T Wila and armed Iranian personnel fast roped aboard the ship. Initial reports indicate two Iranian ships in the vicinity of the incident,” read a statement from the International Maritime Security Construct.
Subsequent photos taken from a ship operating with the International Maritime Security Construct showed an Iranian Navy patrol vessel pulling alongside Wila. The tanker did not call for assistance, according to the IMSC.
A spokesperson for U.S. 5th Fleet would not identify the warship that observed the seizure when asked by USNI News. The photos released by 5th Fleet were credited to the U.S. Navy.
Following the seizure, the U.S.-led collation issued a rebuke to Tehran over the incident.
“Iran’s use of its military forces to conduct an armed boarding of a commercial vessel in international waters constitutes a blatant violation of international law that undermines freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce,” read the statement.
“We call on Iran to articulate to the international community the legal basis for its actions. This type of reckless, aggressive behavior by Iran destabilizes the region and threatens the rules-based international order.”
While Central Command and 5th Fleet didn’t give a reason for the Iranian intervention, maritime security firm Dryad Global indicated Wila could have been targeted due to its connection to a Greek shipping company that has dealt with Iran in the past.
The U.S. has put increasing pressure on companies that do business with Iran and Venezuela and recently removed a handful of Greek companies from a U.S. sanctions list. Iran has a history of punitive military actions on shippers that have interfered with Tehran’s revenue.
Last year, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy forces attacked two petrochemical tankers that were transporting products between Saudi Arabia and Asia. The move was seen as a reaction to increased U.S. sanctions that cut off the sale of petrochemical derivatives – a key revenue stream for the IRGC.
Iranian forces have a sophisticated understanding of not only the contents of merchant ships in the region, but also the ownership of the cargo and the shipping lines, several sources have confirmed to USNI News over the last year.
“It is crucial to underline that Iran’s actions today do not raise the overall risk posed by vessels within either the Gulf of Oman or Strait of Hormuz,” read a threat assessment from Dryad Global.
“There remains a long-standing risk to vessels linked to nations which are embroiled in geopolitical and economic stand-offs with Iran, and this manifest itself in a heightened risk for U.S. and Saudi-flagged vessels.”
The following is the complete statement from the IMSC.
IMSC Statement on the incident with M/T Wila
Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel, the operational arm of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) monitored an incident involving Iranian forces who boarded a tanker in the international waters of the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, Aug 12.
A video captured the moment an Iranian Sea King helicopter hovered above M/T Wila and armed Iranian personnel fast roped aboard the ship. Initial reports indicate two Iranian ships in the vicinity of the incident.
Iran’s use of its military forces to conduct an armed boarding of a commercial vessel in international waters constitutes a blatant violation of international law that undermines freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce. We call on Iran to articulate to the international community the legal basis for its actions. This type of reckless, aggressive behavior by Iran destabilizes the region and threatens the rules based international order.
A CTF Sentinel coalition ship was providing overwatch in the immediate area and monitored the incident. There were no calls for help issued by Wila. CTF Sentinel’s mission is to deter and expose malign activity and reassure the maritime community in the region.
CTF Sentinel is working to secure the regional maritime commons and recommends Best Management Practices 5 (BMP5) as a guide for enhanced maritime security.