By Kate Holton (Reuters) – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Friday they had captured a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized an Iranian vessel this month, ratcheting up tension along a vital international oil shipping route.
Britain said it was urgently seeking information about the Stena Impero after the tanker, which had been heading to a port in Saudi Arabia, suddenly changed course after passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.
A second tanker, the British-operated Mesdar, also made a sharp change of direction in the Gulf around the same time. But the Guards made no mention of a second vessel.
Relations between Iran and the West have become increasingly tense since British naval forces seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would talk to Britain about the tanker seizure, after a war of words earlier in the day over whether the United States had shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Guards, an elite force under the command of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said they seized the Stena Impero at the request of Iranian authorities for “not following international maritime regulations,” state television reported.
Refinitiv tracking data showed the British-operated and Liberian-flagged Mesdar also changed course sharply after entering the Gulf and started heading toward the Iranian coast, about 40 minutes after the Stena Impero shifted direction.
There was no immediate word from the Guards about the second tanker. Mesdar’s manager Norbulk said it was checking the report.
Iran had said it would retaliate against the seizure in Gibraltar and days later three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian ships backed off when confronted by a British navy ship.
“We are urgently seeking further information and assessing the situation following reports of an incident in the Gulf,” a spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Defence said after the Stena Impero changed course.
A person familiar with the matter said the British government’s emergency committee was meeting over the issue.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s office declined to comment.
Refinitiv data showed the Stena Impero is a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk. It showed the vessel’s destination as the Saudi port of Jubail on the Gulf.
The map tracking the ship showed it veering off course with a sharp turn north at about 1517 GMT and heading toward the Iranian coast.
The Mesdar made its shift toward Iran at about 1600 GMT.
“We received reports that the British Stena Impero oil tanker was causing incidents and, therefore, we asked the military to direct it to Bandar Abbas port for the necessary probes,” Allahmorad Afifipour, head of the ports and maritime body of Hormozgan province, told Iran’s semi-official news agency Tasnim.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar.
Reporting by Kate Holton and Jonathan Saul in London and Reuters staff in Dubai; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Frances Kerry