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Iran ‘threatening maritime security,’ Blinken says, after seizure of Greek tankers

Secretary speaks with Greek counterpart, calls for immediate release of vessels captured days after Athens said it would deliver to US Iranian oil it seized from Russian tanker

Illustrative: An Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat moves in the Persian Gulf while an oil tanker is seen in background, July 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
Illustrative: An Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat moves in the Persian Gulf while an oil tanker is seen in background, July 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

The United States joined Athens on Monday in strongly condemning Iran’s seizure of two Greek-flagged oil tankers in Gulf waters and demanding their immediate release, calling the abductions a “threat to maritime security.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias agreed in a call “that Iran must immediately release the seized vessels, their cargoes, and their crews,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights and freedoms are a threat to maritime security and the global economy,” Price added.

“The United States stands with Greece, our key NATO Ally and partner in the face of this unjustified seizure.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Greek tankers in the Gulf Friday, days after Athens confirmed it would deliver to Washington Iranian oil it had seized from a Russian tanker.

Tehran said Saturday the crews of the two tankers were in “good health” and not under arrest.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, exchange greetings in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room before their meeting at the State Department, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

The crews — Greece says nine of its citizens are among the ship workers but has not specified the number of other sailors on board — have remained on board the two tankers.

A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, told the Associated Press it appeared the two ships had come close to — but not into — Iranian territorial waters Friday. After the hijacking, they drifted into Iranian waters. The ships also had turned off their tracking devices, another red flag, the official said. However, neither had issued a mayday or a call for help, the official said.

Greece has condemned Tehran’s seizures as “tantamount to acts of piracy” and warned its citizens not to travel to Iran.

The Revolutionary Guards — the ideological arm of Iran’s military — had said it seized the tankers “due to violations,” without elaborating further.

Greece said one of the tankers had been sailing in international waters, while the second was near the Iranian coast when it was seized.

Athens said Iranian navy helicopters had landed gunmen on the two tankers.

The Greek-flagged oil tanker Prudent Warrior, one of the ships seized by Iran, is seen as it sails past Istanbul, Turkey, April 19, 2019. (Dursun Çam via AP)

The raid marks the first major incident at sea in months as tensions remain high between Iran and the West over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. As Tehran enriches more uranium, closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before, worries mount that negotiators won’t find a way back to the accord — raising the risk of a wider war.

Iran’s seizure on Friday was the latest in a string of hijackings and explosions to roil a region that includes the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. The incidents began after then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members in 2021.

Iranian hijackers also stormed and briefly captured a Panama-flagged asphalt tanker off the United Arab Emirates last year, as well as briefly seizing and holding a Vietnamese tanker in November.

Tehran denies carrying out the attacks, but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West has played out in the region’s volatile waters. Tanker seizures have been a part of it since 2019, when Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero after the United Kingdom detained an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar. Iran released the tanker months later as London also released the Iranian vessel.

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