The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Friday seized two Greek oil tankers in helicopter-launched raids in the Persian Gulf, officials said.
The action appeared to be retaliation for Athens’ assistance in the US seizure of crude oil from an Iranian-flagged tanker this week in the Mediterranean Sea over contraventions of Washington’s sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The raid marks 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. As Tehran enriches more uranium, closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before, worries mount that negotiators will not find a way back to the accord — raising the risk of a wider war.
The Revolutionary Guard issued a statement announcing the seizures, accusing the tankers of unspecified contraventions.
Nour News, a Web site close to the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, said a short time earlier that Tehran planned to take “punitive action” over Greece assisting the US in seizing oil days earlier from the Iranian-flagged tanker Lana.
The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it made a strong demarche to the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent taking over of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Persian Gulf.
“These acts effectively amount to acts of piracy,” a ministry statement said.
The ministry called for the immediate release of the vessels and their crews, saying that the seizure would have “particularly negative consequences” in bilateral relations and in Iran’s relations with the EUn, of which Greece is a member.
An Iranian helicopter landed on the Greek-flagged Delta Poseidon in international waters, about 22 nautical miles (41km) off the coast of Iran, the ministry said.
“Armed men then took the crew captive,” it said, adding that two Greek nationals were among the crew.
“A similar incident has been reported on another Greek-flagged vessel that was carrying seven Greek citizens, close to the coast of Iran,” the ministry said.
A Greek official, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified the second ship as the Prudent Warrior.
Its manager, Polembros Shipping in Greece, earlier said the company was “cooperating with the authorities and making every possible effort to address the situation effectively.”
Greek officials did not identify the nationalities of the other crew on board the vessels.
Both vessels had come from Iraq’s Basra oil terminal, loaded with crude, MarineTraffic.com tracking data showed.
Prudent Warrior just before had been off Qatar and likely loaded oil there as well, the data showed.
It appeared the two ships had come close to — but not into — Iranian territorial waters Friday, a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After the hijacking, they drifted into Iranian waters. The ships had also turned off their tracking devices — another red flag, but neither had issued a mayday or a call for help, the official said.
Iran’s seizure on Friday is the latest in a string of hijackings and explosions to roil a region that includes the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. The incidents began after then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
“This incident is assessed to be a retaliatory action in line with a history of Iranian forces detaining vessels in a tit-for-tat manner,” maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global said. “As a result, Greek-flagged vessels operating within the vicinity of Iran in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman are currently assessed to be at a heightened risk of interception and it is advised to avoid this area until further notice.”
Underlining that threat, Iran’s Tasnim news agency wrote on Twitter that “there are still 17 other Greek ships in the Persian Gulf that could be seized.”
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