Last few weeks have seen a sharp build-up of American combat power off the coast of Iran.
A British maritime agency has said the boarders of a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah region in the Gulf of Oman have left, and an incident that was initially regarded as a “potential hijack” was now over.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said on its Twitter account on Wednesday the vessel was “safe” and the “incident complete”, without providing further detail.
In a warning notice on Tuesday, based on a third-party source, UKMTO had advised ships to exercise extreme caution due to an incident approximately 60 nautical miles (111km) east of Fujairah.
Shipping authority Lloyd’s List and maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global both identified the vessel involved in the incident as Panama-flagged asphalt tanker Asphalt Princess. The vessel’s owner, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment late on Tuesday.
Iranian-backed forces were believed to have seized the ship, three maritime security sources told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh as calling the recent maritime attacks in the region “completely suspicious”. He denied that Iran was involved.
“Iran’s naval forces are ready for help and rescue in the region,” Khatibzadeh said.
The UK’s foreign ministry is “urgently investigating” the incident on a vessel off the coast of the UAE, a spokesperson said on Tuesday.
WARNING 001/AUG/2021 Update 002
Category: Incident – Potential Hijack – Non Piracy
— United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) (@UK_MTO) August 4, 2021
The area in the Arabian Sea leads to the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s seaborne oil exports flows. Fujairah is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
On Tuesday afternoon, at least five ships in the sea between the UAE and Iran updated their AIS tracking status to “Not Under Command”, according to Refinitiv ship tracking data and MarineTraffic.com.
Such a status generally indicates a ship is unable to manoeuvre due to exceptional circumstances.
It was not clear if the data in question data had any connection to the reported incident.
The potential hijacking came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West over its tattered nuclear deal and as commercial shipping in the region has found itself in the crosshairs over it.
Most recently, the United States, the UK and Israel blamed Iran for a drone attack last week on an oil tanker off Oman that killed two people.
The US and UK said on Sunday that they would work with their allies to respond to the attack on the Mercer Street, a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned petroleum product tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime.
Iran denied involvement in that suspected drone attack and said on Monday it would respond promptly to any threat against its security.
Iran and Israel have exchanged various accusations of carrying out attacks on each other’s vessels in recent months.
Gerry Northwood, a former British navy captain, said that the incidents in recent weeks are alarming for international shipping.
Commenting on the incident on Tuesday, Northwood said that “if this is something connected to Iran, there is going to be some sort of state intervention there.”
“If it is some sort of private hijacking, along the lines with Somali hijackers, it will be a matter for ship owners and insurance company to sort out,” he told Al Jazeera.
Tensions have increased in Gulf waters and between Iran and Israel since 2018, when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Since 2019, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
Also in 2019, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero on July 19 in the Strait of Hormuz as it was headed from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to Dubai. The raid came after authorities in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, seized an Iranian supertanker carrying $130m in crude oil on suspicion it was breaking European Union sanctions by taking the oil to Syria. Both vessels were later released.
In July of last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast, following months of tensions between Iran and the US.