Tensions escalate as Iran seizes two Greek tankers in Persian Gulf

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards seized two Greek oil tankers in a helicopter attack in the Persian Gulf on Friday, officials said. The action appears to be in retaliation for Athens for helping the United States seize crude oil from an Iranian-flagged tanker in the Mediterranean this week in violation of Washington’s tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

The raid marked the first major incident at sea in months as tensions remain high between Iran and the West over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. With Tehran increasingly enriching uranium, closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before, there are growing concerns that negotiators will not be able to find a way back to the deal — raising the risk of a wider war.

The Guard issued a statement announcing the seizure, accusing the tanker of unspecified irregularities. Nour News, a website close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, earlier warned that Tehran planned to take “punitive action” against Greece for helping the United States seize oil from the Iranian-flagged tanker Lana days earlier.

Greece’s foreign ministry said it had lodged a strong protest with the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent takeover of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Persian Gulf. “These acts actually constitute acts of piracy,” said a statement from the ministry.

The ministry called for the immediate release of the ships and their crews, warning that the seizure would have a “particularly negative impact” on bilateral relations and Iran’s relations with the European Union, of which Greece is a member.

An Iranian helicopter landed on the Greek-flagged Poseidon Delta in international waters, about 22 nautical miles from the Iranian coast, Iran’s foreign ministry said.

“The armed men then captured the crew,” it said, adding that two Greek nationals were among the crew.

“Similar incidents were reported with another Greek-flagged vessel carrying seven Greek citizens close to the coast of Iran,” the ministry said.

Discussing details of the attack with a reporter, a Greek official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the second ship was the Cautious Soldier. Its manager, Greece’s Polembros Shipping, said earlier that the company was “cooperating with the authorities and doing everything possible to effectively resolve the issue.”

Greek officials have not determined the nationalities of the rest of the crew on board.

Both ships came from the Basra Oil Terminal in Iraq, carrying crude oil, according to MarineTraffic.com tracking data. The data shows that the Prudent Warrior has just left Qatar and is likely to be loaded with oil there as well.

A U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues said the two ships appeared to be approaching but did not enter Iranian territorial waters on Friday. After the hijacking, they drifted into Iranian waters. The ships also turned off their tracking devices — another red flag, the official said. However, neither side issued a distress signal or call for help, the official said.

Iran’s seizure on Friday was the latest in a series of hijackings and bombings that have disrupted areas including the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow port in the Persian Gulf where all trade One-fifth of the oil passes through the strait. The incidents began when then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and Tehran sharply curbed its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The U.S. Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on ships in 2019 that damaged tankers and for a deadly drone strike in 2021 on an Israel-linked tanker that killed two European crew members die.

Last year, Iranian hijackers also raided and briefly seized a Panamanian-flagged asphalt tanker near the United Arab Emirates, and briefly seized and seized a Vietnamese tanker in November.

Tehran has denied launching the attack, but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West is already playing out in the region’s volatile waters. Tanker seizures have been part of that since 2019, when Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero after Britain seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar. A few months later, Iran released the tanker, and London released the Iranian vessel.

Iran also seized and impounded a South Korean-flagged oil tanker for months last year amid disputes over billions of dollars in assets frozen in Seoul.

“Based on the Iranian military’s history of tit-for-tat detaining ships, this incident is assessed as a retaliatory action,” warned maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global. “Hence, Greek-flagged vessels operating near Iran in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman It is currently assessed to be at a higher risk of interception and is advised to avoid this area until further notice.”

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency highlighted the threat in a tweet: “17 other Greek ships still in the Persian Gulf may be seized.”

Meanwhile, the Guard is building a large new support ship near the Strait of Hormuz in an attempt to expand its naval presence in waters critical to international energy supplies and beyond, according to satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press.

Negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal have been stalled since April. Since the deal collapsed, Iran has operated advanced centrifuges and has a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium. Nonproliferation experts have warned that Iran has been enriched to as high as 60 percent purity — a brief technological step from 90 percent weapons-grade levels — if it chooses to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran insists its plans are for peaceful purposes, although UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say it had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.

Analysts said it would still take more time to build a nuclear bomb if Iran pursued weapons, although they warned that Tehran’s progress made the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened to take pre-emptive action to stop Iran in the past — and has been suspected of being involved in a recent spate of killings against Iranian officials.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.

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