Iran’s strategy of state piracy menaces Middle East oil lanes

When Iranian “armed soldiers” boarded the South Korean-flagged oil tanker Hankuk Chemi on Jan. 4, 2021, they were implementing a longstanding if unstated policy of state piracy in the waters of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP/File Photo)
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When Iranian “armed soldiers” boarded the South Korean-flagged oil tanker Hankuk Chemi on Jan. 4, 2021, they were implementing a longstanding if unstated policy of state piracy in the waters of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP/File Photo)
The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow entrance to the Gulf from the Arabian Sea, has emerged as a favorite hunting ground for Iranian IRGC naval units looking to harass oil tankers, of which the Hankuk Chemi, seized on Jan. 4, 2021, is only the latest. (Reuters/WANA)
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The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow entrance to the Gulf from the Arabian Sea, has emerged as a favorite hunting ground for Iranian IRGC naval units looking to harass oil tankers, of which the Hankuk Chemi, seized on Jan. 4, 2021, is only the latest. (Reuters/WANA)
Two oil tankers were damaged in twin attacks close to the Iranian coast on June 13, 2020, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The Kokuka Courageous was struck in the Gulf of Oman by a limpet mine resembling Iranian weapons, according to the US military in the Middle East. (AFP)
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Two oil tankers were damaged in twin attacks close to the Iranian coast on June 13, 2020, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The Kokuka Courageous was struck in the Gulf of Oman by a limpet mine resembling Iranian weapons, according to the US military in the Middle East. (AFP)
The Japanese vessel Kokuka Courageous was struck in the Gulf of Oman by a limpet mine resembling Iranian weapons, according to the US military in the Middle East. It was one of two oil tankers damaged in twin attacks close to the Iranian coast on June 13, 2020, just outside the Strait of Hormuz.
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The Japanese vessel Kokuka Courageous was struck in the Gulf of Oman by a limpet mine resembling Iranian weapons, according to the US military in the Middle East. It was one of two oil tankers damaged in twin attacks close to the Iranian coast on June 13, 2020, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP/File Photo)
The British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero was seized in July 2019 by IRGC units and held off Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran for more than two months as a tit-for-tat move against the detention of an Iranian vessel suspected of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. (AFP file photo)
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The British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero was seized in July 2019 by IRGC units and held off Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran for more than two months as a tit-for-tat move against the detention of an Iranian vessel suspected of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. (AFP file photo)
In July 2019, it was the turn of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized by IRGC units and held off Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran for more than two months as a tit-for-tat move against the detention of an Iranian vessel suspected of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. (AFP/File Photo)
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In July 2019, it was the turn of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized by IRGC units and held off Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran for more than two months as a tit-for-tat move against the detention of an Iranian vessel suspected of shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. (AFP/File Photo)
Iran-backed Houthi militias have repeatedly rebuffed UN pleas to allow an inspection team to enter the FSO Safer, abandoned off the port of Hodeidah with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board, to conduct repairs. The UN expressed fears on July 15, 2020, of
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Iran-backed Houthi militias have repeatedly rebuffed UN pleas to allow an inspection team to enter the FSO Safer, abandoned off the port of Hodeidah with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board, to conduct repairs. The UN expressed fears on July 15, 2020, of "catastrophe" if the vessel ruptured into the Red Sea. (AFP/File Photo)
The UN expressed fears on July 15, 2020, of
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The UN expressed fears on July 15, 2020, of "catastrophe" if the FSO Safer, abandoned off Yemen's coast with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board, ruptured into the Red Sea. Iran-backed Houthi militias, who control Hodeidah port, have repeatedly rebuffed UN pleas to allow an inspection team to enter the ship to conduct repairs. (AFP/File Photo)
A group of 15 British Royal Navy personnel celebrated their release in April 2007 after nearly two weeks of captivity in Iran. They had been seized by Iran in northern Gulf waters in an act of gunboat diplomacy that sparked weeks of wrangling between the two countries. (AFP/File Photo)
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A group of 15 British Royal Navy personnel celebrated their release in April 2007 after nearly two weeks of captivity in Iran. They had been seized by Iran in northern Gulf waters in an act of gunboat diplomacy that sparked weeks of wrangling between the two countries. (AFP/File Photo)
In April 2007, 15 British Royal Navy personnel celebrated their release after nearly two weeks of captivity in Iran. They were seized by Iran in northern Gulf waters in an act of gunboat diplomacy that sparked weeks of wrangling between the two countries. (AFP/File Photo)
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In April 2007, 15 British Royal Navy personnel celebrated their release after nearly two weeks of captivity in Iran. They were seized by Iran in northern Gulf waters in an act of gunboat diplomacy that sparked weeks of wrangling between the two countries. (AFP/File Photo)
British servicemen were made to march blindfolded on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway where they were detained in June 2004 by Iranian troops. The eight were arrested allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. The Shatt al-Arab straddles the border between Iran and southern Iraq. (AFP/File Photo)
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British servicemen were made to march blindfolded on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway where they were detained in June 2004 by Iranian troops. The eight were arrested allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. The Shatt al-Arab straddles the border between Iran and southern Iraq. (AFP/File Photo)
Detained by Iranian troops in June 2004, eight British servicemen were made to march blindfolded on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway after they allegedly strayed into Iranian waters. The Shatt al-Arab straddles the border between Iran and southern Iraq. (AFP/File Photo)
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Detained by Iranian troops in June 2004, eight British servicemen were made to march blindfolded on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway after they allegedly strayed into Iranian waters. The Shatt al-Arab straddles the border between Iran and southern Iraq. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 07 January 2021

Iran’s strategy of state piracy menaces Middle East oil lanes

A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on January 4, 2021, shows the South Korean-flagged tanker being escorted by Iran's Revolutionary Guards navy after being seized in the Gulf. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Iran’s IRGC naval units and their Houthi proxies thumb their nose at the world by seizing oil tankers plying the Gulf
  • The South Korean-flagged Hankuk Chemi is just the latest in a long line of vessels seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz

LONDON: Iran dialed up tensions in the Gulf this week when its troops stormed a South Korean-flagged tanker as it transited through the strategic Strait of Hormuz — a choke point through which a fifth of world oil output passes. The incident is only the latest in a long line of Iranian acts of “state piracy” in the flashpoint region.

The MT Hankuk Chemi was en route from Saudi Arabia’s Jubail to the UAE’s Fujairah on Monday when members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy boarded the vessel and brought it to the port of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran, placing its multinational crew of 20 under arrest.

Iranian authorities alleged the tanker, carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol, was seized for infringing maritime environmental laws — claims the vessel’s owner denies.

Observers suspect the ship was in fact taken hostage as part of an ongoing row with Seoul over $7 billion in revenue from oil sales that remain frozen in South Korean banks under US sanctions imposed against Iran by the Trump administration.

Although the MT Hankuk Chemi is the first major vessel to be seized by Iran in more than a year, incidents of this kind have become all too common in the Strait of Hormuz and nearby shipping lanes. Several vessels have been boarded or mysteriously attacked since President Donald Trump ramped up his “maximum pressure” campaign, with Iran named as the likely culprit.

The IRGC navy has long used its fleet of speedboats to harass commercial shipping and military vessels in the region, seizing at least six ships in 2019 over alleged fuel smuggling. Iran has also repeatedly threatened to blockade the strait if it is attacked.

Several incidents pre-date the current tensions. In January 2016, the IRGC seized two US Navy riverine command boats after they entered Iranian territorial waters near Iran’s Farsi Island. After a flurry of phone calls between then-US secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the sailors were released unharmed 15 hours later.




Iran's ambassador to South Korea Saeed Badamchi Shabestari arrives at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on January 5, 2021, after he was summoned over a South Korean oil tanker being seized by Iran. (AFP/YONHAP)

In March 2007, the IRGC detained 15 British navy personnel from HMS Cornwall as they were searching a merchant vessel off the Iran-Iraq coast. They were released 13 days later. A similar incident occurred in 2004 when six Royal Marines and two Royal Navy sailors were captured by the IRGC in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. They were released three days later.

The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen has also launched repeated attacks on ports and ships in recent years, routinely planting marine mines in the southern Red Sea and in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait in the path of commercial shipping.

The militia has repeatedly rebuffed UN pleas to allow an inspection team to enter the FSO Safer, a 45-year-old oil tanker abandoned off the port of Hodeidah with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board, to conduct urgent repairs. In an extraordinary session, the UN expressed fears on July 15, 2020, of "catastrophe" if the vessel ruptured into the Red Sea.




This CCTV image provided by South Korea's Taikun Shipping Co. shows the moment a South Korean tanker was captured by an Armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat, right, on the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

In May 2019, Washington deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and four B-52 bombers to the Middle East, citing unspecified Iranian threats. A matter of days later, on May 12, four commercial ships, including two Saudi Aramco oil tankers, were damaged near the port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman in what the UAE called a “sabotage attack.”

On June 13, the oil tankers Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous were also both rocked by explosions, thought to have been caused by limpet mines or flying objects. Days later, on June 20, Iran shot down an American RQ-4A surveillance drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz, raising tensions further.

At the time, US President Donald Trump said Iranian boats harassing the US navy “will be shot out of the water.”

INNUMBERS

Iranian Piracy

 

* 20 - Civilian sailors aboard South Korean-flagged Hankuk Chemi.

* $7bn - Amount claimed by Iran to be in a South Korean bank.

The following month, the IRGC held the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero for two months for allegedly ramming a fishing boat. The move was widely seen as an act of retaliation after British Royal Marines detained an Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, in the Strait of Gibraltar on suspicion of violating EU sanctions on Syria.

In the wake of the incident, US Central Command established Operation Sentinel, invited nations to coordinate on surveillance and provide escorts to their flagged commercial vessels in the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman.

After European powers voiced qualms about the possibility of being dragged into a war with Iran, the US rebranded Operation Sentinel as the “International Maritime Security Construct” in Sept. 2019, headquartered in Bahrain.

The world’s eyes are once again on Iran as it uses the capture of the Hankuk Chemi to win concessions from South Korea. Seoul has confirmed it is in talks with Tehran and Washington to use the frozen Iranian money to purchase coronavirus vaccines for the country.




This undated picture taken in an unknown location and released on January 5, 2021 by Yonhap news agency in Seoul shows South Korean Navy's destroyer ROKS Choi Young. South Korea will send a government delegation to Iran "at the earliest possible date" to negotiate the release of a seized oil tanker and its crew, Seoul's foreign ministry said on January 5. (AFP/File Photo)

At the same time, South Korea’s foreign ministry said it is launching legal action to demand the ship’s release. Its defense ministry has also deployed its 300-strong Cheonghae anti-piracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz aboard the destroyer Choi Young to “ensure the safety” of South Korean nationals.

Shin Beom-chul, chief researcher at the Korea Research Institute for Economy and Society, told Arab News that the Iranian move is a desperate bid to get recognition from the incoming Biden administration in the US, which is expected to take a relatively softer stance vis-a-vis Iran.

“Tehran is sending a clear message that it can ratchet up aggression in the region any time, while the issue of frozen money in South Korea is just part of the Trump administration’s financial sanctions,” Shin said.

Iran is reeling from sanctions reintroduced after the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018. Iran’s economic woes have been compounded by one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the region.




This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News on November 19, 2020, shows a military drone parked on a warship named after slain Naval commander Abdollah Roudaki, sailing through the waters in the Gulf during it's inauguration. (AFP/File Photo)

European powers, meanwhile, are scrambling to salvage the JCPOA, just as Iran announced on Monday it has stepped up its uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity — far beyond the limits set by the deal.

Tehran’s successive breaches of the nuclear deal are widely interpreted as a means of pressuring European signatories to provide sanctions relief — a move that Washington has branded “nuclear extortion.”

Also fresh in Tehran’s mind this week is the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force commander, who was eliminated with a US drone strike near Baghdad airport one year ago.

Struggling with sanctions and COVID-19, and bruised by strategic setbacks, Iran appeared to rein in its extra-legal naval activities in 2020. But now the IRGC seems to be reasserting itself in the waning days of the Trump administration.

With little sign of de-escalation in the Gulf, the Hankuk Chemi may not be the last commercial ship to be targeted by Iran in 2021.

-------------------

Twitter: @RobertPEdwards

 

Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

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Fears of Iraq execution spree after Daesh attack

Fears of Iraq execution spree after Daesh attack
Updated 25 January 2021

Fears of Iraq execution spree after Daesh attack

Fears of Iraq execution spree after Daesh attack
  • More than 340 execution orders “for terrorism or criminal acts” were ready to be carried out
  • The orders came after twin suicide attacks claimed by Daesh killed 32 in Baghdad

BAGHDAD: Rights defenders fear Iraq may give the green light to a spree of executions of convicted militants in a show of strength, days after a deadly suicide attack in Baghdad.
On Sunday, an official from Iraq’s presidency told AFP more than 340 execution orders “for terrorism or criminal acts” were ready to be carried out.
“We are continuing to sign off on more,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The orders were disclosed to AFP after twin suicide attacks claimed by the Daesh group on Thursday killed at least 32 people in a crowded open-air Baghdad market.
The blasts were a jolting reminder of the persistent threat posed by the jihadists, despite the government declaring victory over them in late 2017.
The official, along with judicial sources contacted by AFP, could not provide additional details on when the executions may take place or if they included foreigners convicted of belonging to IS.
A 2005 law carries the death penalty for anyone convicted of “terrorism,” which can include membership of an extremist group even if they are not convicted of any specific acts.
Rights groups have warned that executions were being used for political reasons.
“Leaders resort to announcements of mass executions simply to signal to the public that they’re taking... (these issues) seriously,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The death penalty is used as a political tool more than anything else,” she told AFP on Sunday.
In mid-2018, outgoing Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced 13 executions under the Counter-Terror Law, and for the first time authorities published pictures of the hangings.
That came after Daesh killed eight civilians.


Since the official declaration of victory over Daesh, Iraq’s courts have sentenced hundreds to death for crimes perpetrated during the jihadists’ 2014 seizure of around a third of the country and their brutal three-year hold over cities including Mosul.
But only a small proportion of the sentences have been carried out, as they must be approved by the president.
Barham Saleh, who has held the post since 2018, is known to be personally against capital punishment, and has resisted signing execution orders in the past.
Some Iraqis took to social media to demand tougher action from Saleh after Thursday’s attack, accusing him of “not carrying out the sentences” and risking a prison break.
Despite Saleh’s moderating influence, Iraq in 2019 carried out the fourth highest number of executions among nations worldwide, after China and Iran, according to Amnesty International.
Iraq carried out 100 executions that year — one out of every seven worldwide.
Judicial sources told AFP at least 30 executions took place in 2020.
They include 21 men convicted of “terrorism” and executed at the notorious Nasiriyah prison in November.
The move sparked condemnations from the United Nations, which described the news as “deeply troubling” and called on Iraq to halt any further planned executions.


Rights groups accuse Iraq’s justice system of corruption, carrying out rushed trials on circumstantial evidence and failing to allow the accused a proper defense.
They also condemn cramped conditions in detention centers, saying those arrested for petty crimes are often held with hardened jihadists, facilitating radicalization.
Iraq’s government has declined to provide figures on detention centers or prisoners, including how many are facing terrorism-related charges, although some studies estimate 20,000 are being held for purported Daesh links.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said late last year that given such gaps in Iraq’s legal system, implementing capital punishment “may amount to an arbitrary deprivation of life by the State.”
Ali Bayati, a leading member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, told AFP the country had “limited options.”
“Capital punishment is part of the Iraqi legal system — and we do not have real rehabilitation centers,” he said.
“We lack clear guarantees and real transparency in the interrogation and ruling sessions, and in allowing human rights organizations to play their role.”