Iran Seizes Chinese Oil Tanker, Raising Questions About The Two Countries' Alliance

Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Advantage Sweet, which, according to Refinitiv ship tracking data, is a Suezmax crude tanker which had been chartered by oil major Chevron and had last docked in Kuwait, sails through Bophorus Istanbul, Turkey, February 11, 2023. REUTERS/Yoruk Isik
April 27, 2023

Iran’s seizure of a Chinese-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday signals that even Tehran’s closest allies are subject to its malign behavior, experts told the Washington Free Beacon.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the country’s paramilitary fighting force that routinely harasses American ships in the region, intercepted the China-owned oil tanker as it made its way through the gulf en route to Houston, Texas, according to Lloyd’s List, a London-based shipping journal. The vessel is reportedly carrying 750,000 barrels of Kuwaiti crude oil and is chartered by Chevron.

Iran’s brazen seizure of the ship is raising alarm bells with regional experts who say that Tehran’s terrorism has gotten so out of control that not even China, a close ally of the Islamic nation, is immune to its escalating provocations. Beijing is the biggest buyer of heavily sanctioned Iranian crude oil, importing at least $22 billion worth since President Joe Biden took office.

"China has long served as a lifeline for Iran, especially since the U.S. reimposed sanctions on the Iranian oil industry," Claire Jungman, chief of staff for United Against a Nuclear Iran, told the Free Beacon. "Was this a miscalculation from Iran, or has Iran become so brazen that even its close ally China is immune?"

The incident could indicate that China’s recently brokered peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia may not be as strong as some observers believe. If Iran is willing to risk confrontation with Beijing, it also may not hesitate to restart conflict with Riyadh. Jungman, whose advocacy group closely tracks the regime in Tehran, described the timing of the incident as "peculiar."

"Just last month, China brokered an agreement with Iran and Saudi Arabia which reflected China’s growing influence in Iran," she said. "It seems peculiar that Iran would then look to seize a tanker owned by its largest trading partner."

The imprisoned ship is registered to China’s Puyin Financial Leasing Company Limited, which is based in Shanghai, according to Lloyd’s. The tanker is managed by a company based in Turkey, another country that has maintained generally good relations with Tehran.

Iran's army claimed it had seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman after it collided with an Iranian boat, injuring several crewmen, Iranian state media reported.

"Two members of the boat's crew are missing and several were injured due to the collision of the ship with the boat," an Iranian army statement said.

The United States military—which is a frequent target of IRGC harassment and confrontation in the Persian Gulf region—is reportedly monitoring the situation via its fifth fleet.

"Iran’s actions are contrary to international law and disruptive to regional security and stability. The Iranian government should immediately release the oil tanker," U.S. Naval Command in Bahrain said in a statement. "Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters are a threat to maritime security and the global economy."

The State Department declined to immediately comment on the situation Thursday, instead directing questions to the Pentagon.

Iran has seized at least five commercial vessels traveling through the region in the past two years, likely in response to American and European efforts to increase sanctions on the IRGC. Iran also is suspected to be responsible for drone strikes and other attacks on vessels traversing through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical shipping route. This includes a drone attack last year on an Israeli-owned tanker.

Munro Anderson, a partner at the maritime security company Dryad, said Iran usually detains vessels for "leverage or signaling."

"The working hypothesis at the moment is that it could either be an arbitrary detention of a vessel by Iran in response to the U.S. sailing its first unmanned vessel through the region last week—as a show of force," he said. "Or, it could be in response to the sanctions on the 24th [of April] by the U.S. against personnel in Iran connected to the IRGC."

Meanwhile, the United States announced on Thursday new sanctions on the IRGC "for its involvement in the wrongful detention of at least one U.S. national abroad," according to the State Department.

Published under: China , Iran , IRGC , Oil