Iran Tanker Helm Makes Distress Call Near Saudi Red Sea Port

Anthony DiPaola and Arsalan Shahla

(Bloomberg) -- The Iranian oil carrier Helm experienced technical issues in the Red Sea off the Saudi port of Yanbu and the crew is working to resolve them, according to the National Iranian Tanker Co.

The vessel, one of the world’s largest crude tankers, signaled distress at 6:30 a.m. Iran time on Tuesday, about 75 miles (about 121 kilometers) off of Yanbu, owner NITC said in a statement. Both the ship and crew are safe and stable, NITC said without saying whether the Helm can continue the voyage.

The tanker was showing minimal movement in the immediate area on Wednesday, according to tanker-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg at 2:30 p.m. in London.

Iran’s tanker fleet is under global scrutiny amid U.S. sanctions seeking to choke off the country’s crude sales. The U.S. failed in efforts to seize a loaded supertanker allegedly bound for Syria that had been blocked in Gibraltar for more than a month.

That vessel, the Adrian Darya 1, is now sailing east in the Mediterranean and signaling Greece, potentially to transfer crude to other ships. Another tanker loaded crude this month in Iran with the aim of delivering oil to Syria, Fox News reported, citing unidentified intelligence officials.

Transponder Signals

Iranian tankers have turned off their satellite transponders intermittently in an apparent attempt to mask their voyages to supply crude. The Helm appears to have used that strategy since loading some crude in Iran in May.

It’s unclear when the Helm entered the Red Sea or what was the ship’s last port of call, based on tanker-tracking data available on Bloomberg. Until this week when the vessel made the distress call, the tanker’s last known position was in the Persian Gulf in May when satellite signals showed the tanker was half full and heading for the Suez canal.

The Helm, a Very Large Crude Carrier, capable of carrying about 2 million barrels of crude, is not full, according to ship tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. The tanker last reported its status as “not under command.”

Another NITC tanker that encountered trouble off the Saudi coast was kept in the port of Jeddah for more than two months before leaving in July and returning to Iran this month.

Separately on Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the country’s government will try to expedite the legal process over its holding of a U.K.-flagged oil tanker so “we can close this ordeal.”

Iran seized the ship, the Stena Impero, in July, following the detention of the tanker that was held in Gibraltar. “This is something that we did not start but we want to end,” Zarif said at an event in Stockholm.

(Updates with ship position in third paragraph, comment from Iranian foreign minister in last two paragraphs.)

--With assistance from Rafaela Lindeberg.

To contact the reporters on this story: Anthony DiPaola in Dubai at adipaola@bloomberg.net;Arsalan Shahla in Tehran at ashahla@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Nayla Razzouk at nrazzouk2@bloomberg.net, Brian Wingfield, John Deane

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