Iranian forces boarded a tanker near the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, the U.S. military command overseeing operations in the region says, though it’s yet unclear what it expected to achieve with the provocative maneuver.
U.S. Central Command reported late Wednesday that two Iranian ships and a helicopter carrying Iranian troops boarded the “Wila” tanker and overtook it. The Liberian-flagged vessel is owned by a Greek company and had been operating in international waters near the middle of the contentious strait before sailing to Oman, where it remained as of Thursday morning, according to MarineTraffic, which tracks ships and their movement.
Central Command, which posted a video on Twitter of a helicopter hovering over a ship, did not provide an explanation for why Iran may have tried to seize the vessel, and Tehran as of Thursday morning had not made any mention publicly of the incident.
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However, private intelligence firm DryadGlobal assesses the ship may have been targeted because of previous linkages to Greek companies that the U.S. Department of Justice had sanctioned for supporting the shipment of Iranian oil to Venezuela.
“Greek-managed vessels have come to the fore in recent months following their willingness to trade oil exported from Iran to Venezuela,” it wrote in an analysis note. “Such a move brought Greek-firms under international scrutiny, and in June of this year four vessels linked to Greek companies were blacklisted by the U.S. Following this blacklisting, future shipments of crude oil from Iran which were to be carried by Greek-managed vessels were scrapped.”
Wednesday’s incident may have served as a way for Iran to respond to this perceived grievance or to distract the Iranian people away from domestic concerns as the economy contracts and the coronavirus continues to spread there.
“In targeting this vessel, Iran has potentially sought to send a clear message to vessels which decide to renege on their willingness to partake in, or facilitate, economic activities linked to the nation,” according to DryadGlobal.
It also noted the vessel is insured by an American company and that Iranian forces attempted to seize two other vessels in the Persian Gulf as a part of a broader operation.