U.S. Official Confirms Iran Seized Oil Tanker, Says U.S. Military Just Monitored Incident

A U.S. defense official has confirmed to Newsweek that Iranian forces seized an oil tanker in the Sea of Oman last week but said U.S. forces just observed the incident and did not confront the Revolutionary Guard.

The semiofficial Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting outlet first reported Wednesday that U.S. forces confiscated a tanker carrying Iranian oil in the Sea of Oman and then transferred it to another tanker. Iran's Revolutionary Guard forces were said to have then carried out a helicopter landing on the second vessel, allowing them to take control and steer it back toward Iranian waters, thus avoiding U.S. warships and aircraft that then reportedly gave chase.

In an official release, the Revolutionary Guard confirmed the incident and said that the tanker reached the southern port of Bandar Abbas on October 25. It accused the U.S. of "piracy," as did Iranian Oil Minister Javad Oji who praised the actions of Iranian forces.

The U.S. defense official, speaking to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity, presented a counternarrative of the event.

"We're refuting the Iranian claims that they prevented us from taking back this vessel," the official said. "Here's the bottom line: This occurred last week. U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Oman observed Iranian naval forces seize this oil tanker."

The official described what on-scene U.S. forces had seen.

"There were over 10 Iranian fast boats that swarmed this thing," the official said. "There was a helicopter seen flying around, and, bottom line, our forces responded to monitor the situation."

The official said that the U.S. declined to release the incident's details last week "due to a number of sensitivities." The official added that "Iran is now spinning this against us, saying that they prevented us from taking back this vessel when it's very clear that our forces were simply there monitoring."

Footage later released by Iranian media appeared to show a tense scene with Iranian fast attack craft sailing between the Vietnamese-flagged tanker Sothys on one side and two U.S. Navy 5th Fleet Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, USS Michael Murphy and USS The Sullivans, on the other.

The U.S. defense official Newsweek spoke to confirmed that the tanker in question is currently in Iranian waters, and maritime trackers currently show the Sothys located in the vicinity of Bandar Abbas.

۲. تصاویری از عملیات برخورد نیروی دریایی سپاه با ناوهای آمریکایی pic.twitter.com/MUt1oHHxqm

— خبرگزاری فارس (@FarsNews_Agency) November 3, 2021

The U.S. has previously confiscated a number of tankers carrying Iranian oil to Venezuela, accusing them of violating U.S. sanctions that restrict the Islamic Republic from exporting its natural resources. These measures date back to former President Donald Trump's 2018 abandonment of a nuclear deal forged three years earlier by his predecessor with Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom.

President Joe Biden, who was vice president when the landmark accord was reached, has publicly set out to reenter it. But so far six rounds of negotiations have failed to establish enough common ground to do so, and unilateral U.S. sanctions remain in place.

Meanwhile, Iran has begun enriching uranium at levels beyond those set in the deal, although the country maintains it is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the top diplomat of recently sworn-in administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, said Tehran's team would return to the Vienna talks this month after a monthslong pause during the Iranian election.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News in an interview that aired Sunday the Biden administration still felt "diplomacy is the best path forward for putting the nuclear program back in the box that had been in under the agreement," but warned U.S. officials "were also looking at, as necessary, other options" and would not rule out military action in comments reminiscent of his predecessor, Trump's former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The following day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh responded by reiterating it was the U.S. that first left the deal, and dismissed "lackluster and hackneyed" remarks regarding other potential courses of action.

"Instead of slipping into the language and logic of hawks in the United States and falling into the trap of those who do all they can to preserve Trump's failed legacy," Khatibzadeh said, "the U.S. had better make an effort to create a new language and logic based on respecting the rights of nations."

Sanctions relief has been complicated by the Trump administration's decision to target Iranian oil companies not only with nuclear-related sanctions but terrorism ones stemming from the U.S. designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization in April 2019. Shortly afterward, Iran designated all U.S. forces in the region as terrorists.

Since then, a number of incidents involving oil tankers have occurred at sea, especially in the Gulf of Oman, where two sets of unclaimed attacks on international vessels were blamed by the U.S. on Iran, which has denied involvement.

In the summer of 2019, the U.K. confiscated an Iranian tanker as it transited the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, accusing it of sending oil to European Union–blacklisted Syria. Two weeks later, the Revolutionary Guard seized a U.K.-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, alleging it was sailing unsafely in the crucial oil chokepoint at the center of regional and international tensions.

The news of last week's incident in the Gulf of Oman comes just a day before the 42nd anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis. Supporters of the Islamic Revolution that ousted the West-backed shah in 1979 held dozens of U.S. officials and staff at Washington's embassy in Tehran for 444 days.

The day is commemorated in Iran as the National Day of Protest Against Global Arrogance.

IRGC, Navy, Forces, Russia, exercise
Iranian forces seized an oil tanker in the Sea of Oman last week, but a U.S. defense official said U.S. forces just observed the incident. Above, members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conduct a joint exercise with Russian forces in the northern Indian Ocean on February 17. Iranian Army Office

Update 11/3/21, 11:56 a.m. ET: This story was updated with more information on the Sea of Oman incident and other background.