Illustration; Source: U.S. Navy

U.S. takes steps to boost naval presence, as Iran gets its hands on another oil tanker

In a bid to address the growing threat to commercial shipping and put a stop to vessel seizures, the United States (U.S.) has set the wheels into motion to bolster naval patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East. This comes on the heels of Iran reportedly confiscating a third oil tanker in the Persian Gulf in recent weeks.

Illustration; Source: U.S. Navy

Based on reports from Iran’s Tehran Times and other media agencies, a joint operation, led by the country’s Intelligence Ministry and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy, enabled the return of the 2008-built Purity oil tanker to Iranian territorial waters, after it was “illegally stolen by a foreign firm” in 2018. Iran claims that the 10,000-ton oil tanker was used for fuel trafficking. The reports indicate that the vessel is docked at Assaluyeh Port on the Persian Gulf’s westernmost coast.

This is the third incident revolving around oil tankers seized by Iranian forces in a little over two weeks. The previous one took place at the start of May 2023 when the Panama-flagged oil tanker, Niovi, was captured by Iran’s IRGCN in the Strait of Hormuz. A few days prior to this, Iran’s Navy seized the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker, Advantage Sweet, in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. also blamed Iran for a drone attack on Eastern Pacific Shipping’s Pacific Zircon oil tanker in November 2022 off the coast of Oman.

With the Iran nuclear deal still at a stalemate five years after the U.S. pulled out, the incidents come amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. These tensions appear to have found an outlet in vessel seizures, which are depicted as a retaliation measure against the U.S.-seized cargo of Iranian oil under a court order on board the Suez Rajan.

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Judging by the United States’ response to Iran’s vessel seizures, the U.S. naval presence in international waters, which exists to support its regional allies and secure energy flows, will not be ending any time soon. Following – what is described as – Iran’s “unlawful merchant vessel seizures,” the U.S. Fifth Fleet disclosed on Friday, 12 May 2023, that it was working with regional allies and partners to increase the rotation of ships and aircraft patrolling in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

Furthermore, the increased presence is seen as a way to support multinational efforts to deter threats to commercial shipping and reassure regional mariners. Aside from heightened patrols, the U.S. is strengthening international maritime security collaboration between the International Maritime Security Construct and European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz.

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, commented: “Iran’s unwarranted, irresponsible and unlawful seizure and harassment of merchant vessels must stop. U.S. Fifth Fleet and our partners are committed to protecting navigational rights in these critical waters.”

Moreover, the U.S. is adamant that Iran has harassed, attacked, or interfered with the navigational rights of 15 internationally flagged merchant vessels over the past two years, which is perceived to be contrary to international law and disruptive to regional security.

The Strait of Hormuz, which is a narrow waterway that connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, is seen as one of the most strategically important oil chokepoints in the world due to its location and the amount of oil that is shipped through it, as 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne-traded crude oil passes through it every day.