The US Navy (USN) has warned that Iranian naval actions in regional waters are a “present threat” to commercial shipping, following the 3 May seizure of the Panama-flagged oil tanker Niovi by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) while it was in transit through the Strait of Hormuz.

Situated at the entrance to the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz is a narrow choke point through which a significant proportion of the world’s oil and gas passes each day, with countries such as Qatar and the UAE heavily dependent on the route. The route narrows so that the territorial waters of Oman and Iran meet, with recognised transit corridors maintaining the flow of traffic.

In a 3 May release, the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), home of the USN’s 5th Fleet based out of Mina Salman in Bahrain, stated that at approximately 06:20am local time, the Niovi was seized by the IRGCN while transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

The oil tanker had departed Dubai and was heading towards Fujairah, on the other side of the strait in the Arabian Gulf when, according to NAVCENT, “a dozen fast-attack craft swarmed the vessel”, and the IRGCN subsequently “forced the oil tanker to reverse course” and head towards the Iranian territorial waters off the coast of Bandar Abbas, Iran.

A NAVCENT spokesperson told Naval Technology that footage of the seizure was captured by a US military UAV operating in the region.

“There was no distress call, we just spotted [the seizure],” the spokesperson said, adding that NAVCENT had been in contact with the owner of the Niovi about the incident.

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A previous incident occurred six days ago when the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy seized Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Advantage Sweet while it transited international waters in the Gulf of Oman. During the seizure, the crew of the Advantage Sweet issued a distress call, unlike the 3 May incident.

The 3 May NAVCENT statement declared Iran’s actions as “contrary to international law and disruptive to regional security and stability”.

Latest Iranian attack on shipping?

Over the past two years, NAVCENT said Iran had harassed, attacked, or interfered with the navigational rights of 15 internationally flagged merchant vessels.

“Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters are unwarranted, irresponsible and a present threat to maritime security and the global economy,” NAVCENT stated.

On 3 May, the state-run IRNA news agency stated that Tehran’s Public and Revolution Prosecutor’s office announced that the Niovi had been seized because of a private complaint and a “subsequent order by relevant judicial authorities”.

According to the MarineTraffic monitoring site, the last registered position of the Niovi was taken on 3 May just off the tip of Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula at the apex of the Strait of Hormuz. The lack of any up-to-date location information indicates that the vessel’s AIS tracker has been deactivated.

US and international naval vessels under the CMF coalition, including the UK, regularly patrol the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, and have had a number of run-ins with Iranian forces in recent months.