US Will Bolster Posture in Persian Gulf as Iran Seizes Third Tanker

US Strait of Hormuz
US Coast Guard and a Navy drone recently transiting the Strait of Hormuz (US Navy photo)

Published May 12, 2023 4:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

The White House on Friday said the U.S. Navy would “begin to bolster its defensive posture” in the Arabian Gulf region in response to actions by Iran continuing to harass commercial vessels in the region. At the same time, Iranian state media was widely reporting that they have taken legal control of yet another tanker in the region this time to settle a commercial dispute. So far, no Western media has confirmed the latest reported actions by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).

During a press briefing, John Kirby, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, highlighted the new efforts. He pointed to the 15 internationally flagged commercial vessels that the U.S. says have been harassed, attacked to interfered with in the region by Iranian forces. There was no mention of the direct interaction between Iran and the ships of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, which have reported a series of close approaches and risky maneuvers by the Iranians. “Today, the Department of Defense will be making a series of moves to bolster our defensive posture in the Arabian Gulf,” Kirby told reporters. 

U.S. 5th Fleet issued a brief statement saying that CentCom “is working with regional allies and partners to increase the rotation of ships and aircraft patrolling in and around the Strait of Hormuz following Iran’s recent unlawful merchant vessel seizures.”

This announcement comes after members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate at the end of April introduced a bill, the Maritime Architecture and Response to International Terrorism in the Middle East Act (MARITIME) that calls on the Department of Defense to develop a strategy with Middle East partners and allies to counter maritime threats from Iran and others. The legislation highlights the threats from manned and unmanned naval systems, such as the recently reported drone and missile assaults on merchant ships. The legislators are calling for the development of a strategy and to study the possibility of facilitating an increased maritime awareness and interdiction capabilities to expand on the existing operations in the region.

Iranian state media today is reporting that they took control of a Panama-flagged product tanker Purity (9,250 dwt) while it was sailing in the Persian Gulf. The 15-year old tanker was reportedly directed into the Asaluyeh anchorage in Southern Iran and its AIS signal confirms it has been in the port since May 9. 

“The Purity was illegally rented to a foreign individual with forfeited documents about five years ago and its Iranian owners were deprived of their interest,” according to the report in the Iranian media. They are reporting that last month a judicial order was issued for the return of the vessel and that the IRGC acted along with the Ministry of Intelligence in carrying out the seizure. 

The product tanker according to AIS data has been making frequent trips between India and the Persian Gulf. It appears to have been in the UAE since the end of last month. The Iranian report says the vessel will be unloaded at the Asaluyeh Port.

The Equasis database shows that the Purity has been owned since 2012 by Sun Ocean Shipping based in Hong Kong. Until late last year, it was also being managed out of Hong Kong before management was transferred to a company in Mumbai, India. The database reflects a long list of owners and managers since the vessel was built in 2008 but says it has been sailing as the Purity since 2019 and for seven years before that as the Sun Ocean.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. reported that Iran had seized another Panama-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The crude oil tanker Niovi was taken to the anchorage at Larak/Qeshm Islands. The vessel is linked to Greek shipping interests with Iran saying the vessel was impounded by a court of an unspecified dispute. TankerTrackers.com analyzed the vessel’s history speculating that it was involved in the shipment of Iranian oil and raises the possibility of a dispute between Iran and the managers.

A week before that, however, Iran seized the Advantage Sweet, managed by Advantage Tankers. Analysts linked that action as retaliation for the U.S. efforts to confiscate the crude oil cargo aboard another Marshall Islands-registered tanker the Suez Rajan, managed by Empire Navigation. The U.S. has been pursuing a court case since February 2023 attempting to seize the cargo aboard the vessel which had been anchored in Asia but was last spotted sailing off the coast of Africa. It has been speculated that the vessel is bringing the oil which is believed to be Iranian crude to the U.S. to be offloaded.