Watch: Ship attacked off Oman moored near UAE
Iranian-backed forces were suspected of seizing an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman on Tuesday night, just days after Iran was blamed for a drone attack on another tanker that killed a British crew member.
The Royal Navy’s UK Maritime Trade Operations [UKMTO] agency warned of a suspected “hijacking” incident near the Emirati port of Fujairah but did not give further details.
The hijacked ship was believed to be the Asphalt Princess, a Panama-flagged vessel. Armed soldiers had reportedly stormed on board.
The asphalt and bitumen tanker was believed to be travelling to Sohar, a port on Oman's northern coast, when it was attacked at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday afternoon.
Satellite-tracking data for the vessel showed it slowly heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early on Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com.
The incident comes after Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, accused Iran of a "deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law" following a drone attack on the Liberian-flagged tanker Mercer Street last week.
Britain, the United States and Israel say they are confident that Iran was behind the attack, which killed a British security guard, and have vowed to retaliate.
There are growing concerns about increasingly aggressive Iranian actions in the Middle East, with Britain, America, Israel and other nations in secret discussions about how to retaliate. A British special forces team is understood to have been sent to the region and there is growing speculation an offensive cyber attack against Iran is being considered.
Israel's prime minister on Tuesday called for an international response to the attack on the MV Mercer Street but warned he would be prepared to launch a unilateral strike if an alliance took too long to form.
"They can’t sit calmly in Tehran while igniting the entire Middle East, that’s over,” Naftali Bennett said. “We are working to enlist the whole world, but when the time comes, we know how to act alone. Iran knows the price that we’ll exact when anyone threatens our security.”
Israeli television said the country's defence and foreign ministers would present "hard evidence" of Iranian complicity in the attack on the tanker at a meeting of ambassadors of United Nations Security Council members today. Britain is also expected to send a letter to the security council blaming Iran for the attack on the MV Mercer Street.
Nato on Tuesday night condemned the attack on the MV Mercer Street and said member states Romania, the US and Britain had all concluded Iran was responsible. "Allies remain concerned by Iran's destabilising actions in the region, and call on Tehran to respect its international obligations," the alliance said.
Growing tension as UK calls for release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Amid the growing tensions, an Iranian news agency reported on Tuesday night that talks on releasing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British-Iranian citizens held in Iran had been frozen after Tehran said it had abandoned a prisoner exchange deal with the West.
An unnamed Iranian official told the pro-regime news agency Nour that there was no longer any “incentive” to continue negotiations on swapping US and Iranian prisoners.
The agency claimed that Iran had also frozen the process of releasing Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother who has been detained since 2016.
It claimed that Iran had scrapped the talks because the UK had pushed for the release of the environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who holds both British and American citizenship.
British negotiators are believed to have told their Iranian counterparts that they will reject any deal that does not include the release of Mrs Zaghari Ratcliffe, Mr Tahbaz, and Anousheh Ashoori, a London businessman.
A UK Government spokesman said: "Iran’s continued arbitrary detention of our dual nationals is unacceptable. We urge the Iranian authorities to release the detainees without any further delay."
Richard Ratcliffe, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, said he had spoken with Mr Raab on Tuesday and received assurances that he was “keen not to leave anyone behind”.
“What the Foreign Secretary said to me is that they felt they had come closer than they had before, but they hadn't got there,” Mr Ratcliffe said. "And they need to wait to see how the new administration takes office, and see how the next few months go.”
Iranian hardline leader takes power
The escalation comes after a new Iranian leader, Ebrahim Raisi, an ultra-conservative judge who was elected president in June, was inaugurated by Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, at a ceremony in Tehran on Tuesday morning.
Mr Raisi is known as a strict hardliner who opposed outgoing reformist president Hassan Rouhani's policy of reaching out to the West. His election victory in June raised fears of mounting tensions in the Middle East.
He has been sanctioned by the United States over his alleged role in the massacre of hundreds of suspected militants in Iranian jails in the 1980s.
Tuesday night's apparent hijacking was already causing major disruption to one of the world's most important shipping routes.
Shortly after the UKMTO alert, four vessels in the same area reported that they were “no longer under command”, a nautical term meaning they were unable to manoeuvre.
British sources told Sky News on Tuesday night that there was “no British link” to the Asphalt Princess. However, Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State, said the US is looking to the UK to take the lead in formulating a response.
"We are letting the British take the lead, both at the UN in terms of what the response would be, as well as any further response," she told reporters.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are urgently investigating an incident on a vessel off the UAE coast.”
The Mercer Street is owned by a Japanese company and managed by a subsidiary of the London-based Zodiac Group, owned by the Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer.
However, it was reported on Tuesday night that the Asphalt Princess did not have any connection to Israel.
Iran’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday night that reports of the Asphalt Princess hijacking were “suspicious” and claimed they were an attempt to create a “false atmosphere” against Tehran.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which maintains a navy in the Persian Gulf, denied involvement.
It is not the first time this year that Iranian forces or its proxy groups in the region have been suspected of hijacking a merchant vessel.
In January, a South Korea-flagged ship was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who detained its crew as part of a dispute over funds frozen in South Korea due to US sanctions.
In 2019, Iran seized a tanker carrying 700,000 litres of diesel, saying it was involved in illegal fuel smuggling on behalf of unnamed Arab states.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Vahdat
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