DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran seized a Vietnamese-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman last month and still holds the vessel, two US officials told The Associated Press, on Wednesday, revealing the latest provocation in Mideast waters as tensions escalate between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard troops took control of the MV Southys, a vessel that analysts suspect of trying to transfer sanctioned Iranian crude oil to Asia, on Oct. 24, at gunpoint. US forces had monitored the seizure, but ultimately didn’t take action as the vessel sailed into Iranian waters.
Iran celebrated its capture of the vessel in dramatic footage aired on state television, the day before the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Officials at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ship-tracking data analyzed by the AP from MarineTraffic.com showed the vessel still off Iran’s southern port of Bandar Abbas, on Tuesday. A satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. also showed the vessel off Bandar Abbas in recent days.
The two US officials spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be made public amid ongoing attempts to restart talks over Iran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Negotiations have stalled in Vienna since the election of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, in June, allowing Iran to press ahead with its nuclear program and raising alarm in Western capitals.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said last week that talks would resume, in November, but didn’t provide a specific date. The European Union late Wednesday said the negotiations would resume, Nov. 29, in Vienna.
The officials spoke to AP after Iranian state TV offered a series of contradictory reports about a confrontation between the Guard and the US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet. State TV sought to cast the incident as an act of American aggression against Iran in the Gulf of Oman, with the US Navy detaining a tanker carrying Iranian oil and the Guard freeing it and bringing it back to the Islamic Republic.
Asked about Iran’s assertion of US aggression, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said it was false and that it was Iran that had seized what he described as a merchant vessel in the Gulf of Oman on Oct. 24.
“It’s a bogus claim,” Kirby said of the Iranian assertion. “The only seizing that was done was by Iran.” He declined to cite the nationality of the vessel that was seized, saying it was up to that country to discuss it.
Kirby said Iran’s boarding and seizing of the vessel “constituted a blatant violation of international law that undermines freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.”