Report: Hong Kong-Flagged Product Tanker Diverted to Iranian Waters

SC Taipei (encircled) stopped off the Iranian coast, April 14 (MarineTraffic)

Published Apr 14, 2020 1:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

Maritime security consultancy Dryad Global reported Monday that a product tanker may have been boarded at an anchorage in the Gulf of Oman and taken into Iranian waters.

Dryad received an unconfirmed report indicating that an unspecified Hong Kong-flagged vessel came under attack about 50 nm northeast of Fujairah. The vessel was reported to have been boarded by armed men and taken to Iranian waters. 

The vessel, which Dryad believes to be the Hong Kong-flagged product tanker SC Taipei, likely has 22 Chinese seafarers on board. She was believed to be at anchor and in ballast, awaiting orders to head to al-Jubail, Saudi Arabia. However, at about 1245 hours UTC her AIS signal shows that she got under way towards the Iranian coast. At about 1430, she stopped about four nm off the port town of Mogh-e Qanbareh-ye Kuh Mobarak.

"Details regarding this event remain fluid and it is currently unclear whether the vessel is in distress or is being assisted by Iran in some way. Dryad Global assesses that her current location does not correspond with any known commercial activity in the region," the consultancy wrote. 

Dryad noted that Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region of China, and China is one of Iran's largest remaining trading partners. Beijing could view an attack on a Hong Kong vessel in an unfavorable light. "At a time when China still buys Iranian oil, and Iran has few international friends, such a move would be highly irregular, and would not further Iran’s interests. The vessels flag has the potential to cast doubt on the veracity of the entire incident, yet it cannot nor should not be ruled out that Iran has conducted this operation, or that Iranian naval/IRGC units have acted in haste," Dryad wrote. 

However, an attack could be a sign of Iran's growing desperation due to the effects of punishing American sanctions. "The detention of a vessel in the Strait of Hormuz would fit comfortably within previous Iranian intent and capability (as has been observed in the last 24 months) and would provide an opportune ‘opening salvo’ in an Iranian attempt to release the pressures the country currently faces," Dryad assessed. "Iran is also highly likely to be seeking to deflect internal focus away from COVID-19, and a potential Western response to a maritime incident would create ample ‘diplomatic noise’ to ease some of the pressure Tehran is facing."