A trio of armed Iranian speedboats swarmed around a merchant vessel sailing through the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday, according to the U.S. Navy.
At around 4:56 p.m. local time, the unnamed merchant ship sent out a distress signal and reported the three “fast-attack craft with armed personnel” had begun following them at a close distance. A black and white photo taken by a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft showed the three speedboats, believed to have been operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), cruising alongside the merchant ship.
The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul (DDG 74) and UK Royal Navy frigate HMS Lancaster (F 229) responded to the merchant ship’s distress call, according to a press statement from the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain. As part of the response, the Lancaster launched a helicopter that helped monitor the scene.
After about an hour, the three suspected IRGCN attack boats broke off and left the area and the merchant ship was able to continue through the narrow Hormuz Strait, which connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the wider Arabian Sea.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet statement did not identify the merchant vessel by name, but the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO)—a monitoring service provided by the Royal Navy—did share more specific details about the location of the encounter. Ship-tracking data from MarineTraffic.com showed the Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier Venture circling around the same approximate area UKMTO described at around the same time as the distress call.
Iran Denies Harassing Cargo Ship
While the U.S. Fifth Fleet characterized the incident as one in which Iranian vessels harassed a merchant ship, IRGCN Rear Admiral Abbas Gholamshahi denied the allegations. In a statement to the Iranian state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Gholamshahi claimed IRGCN boats had responded to a request for assistance from a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel and the Iranian boats helped “alleviate its concerns.” Gholamshahi described the incident as the merchant ship issuing a distress call about some other small boats in the area, and not the speed boats carrying IRGC personnel.
This latest encounter between IRGCN personnel and a merchant ship comes about a month after IRGCN troops captured two merchant ships traveling near the Hormuz Strait.
On April 27, IRGCN troops were lowered down from a helicopter to capture a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker, called the Advantage Sweet. The tanker had been traveling through the Gulf of Oman and had been carrying a shipment of crude oil for Chevron at the time.
One week after capturing the Advantage Sweet, IRGCN troops captured the Panama-flagged crude oil tanker Niovi in the Hormuz Strait. The Fifth Fleet shared footage surveillance footage of the incident, this time showing several speed boats swarming around the tanker.
“Iran’s actions are contrary to international law and disruptive to regional security and stability,” the Fifth Fleet said of the pair of incidents. “Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters are unwarranted, irresponsible and a present threat to maritime security and the global economy.”
The Strait of Hormuz is a critical choke point for international commerce. About 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through the narrow waterway.
The Advantage Sweet and Niovi were both subsequently spotted by satellite at a naval base just south of Bandar Abbas, a strategic port city overlooking the Hormuz Strait.
Following the Sunday incident, the U.S. Fifth Fleet said it “remains vigilant and is bolstering defense around the key strait with partners to enhance regional maritime security and stability.”