14 April 2020: International security firm Dryad Global received information that a Hong Kong flagged tanker was boarded by armed men and taken to Iranian waters. The security firm reported that the tanker has since been released and is under the control of the vessel master
Dryad Global identified the vessel taken to Iranian waters was likely to be the Hong Kong-flagged, 2000-built, 22,400-dwt chemical parcel tanker SC Taipei. The group said it "understood" that the vessel has a crew of 22, all of which are believed to be Chinese nationals. Dryad Global reported the vessel had been at anchor in an in-ballast condition and awaiting orders to approach al-Jubail in Saudi Arabia. At 12:48 UTC the vessel was shown to be underway towards the Iranian coastline, the report said. At 14:28 UTC the vessel was shown to be stationary at 4 nautical miles off Mogh-e Qanbareh-ye Kuh Mobarak.
Details regarding this event remain fluid, and it is unclear whether the vessel was in distress or was being assisted by Iran in some way, the group said. Dryad Global assessed that the vessel’s location did not correspond with any known commercial activity in the region.
Dryad Global noted in its assessment of the incident that a key variable is that the SC Taipei is understood to be a Hong Kong-flagged vessel.
"While Beijing is not responsible for Hong Kong vessels, there is a realistic possibility that China would view the detention of a Hong Kong vessel as a proxy assault on its own sovereignty. 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, notes Dryad Global. The vessel’s 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 Global’s report said.
Dryad Global has reported in recent weeks that Iran, due to the pressures of Covid-19, US-imposed sanctions and a collapsing oil price, faces a ‘perfect storm’ which could manifest as an existential threat to the regime. Even if Iran can weather current events, Tehran may decide the current threat profile is existential in nature and may respond accordingly.
What is clear is that Iran has been relatively quiet since the flurry of incidents in 2019 which commenced with the explosions on four tankers off Fujairah in May 2019. This was followed in June 2019 by explosions on tankers Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman. The incidents peaked with the seizure by Iranian military forces of Stena Impero in July 2019 in retaliation for the detention of Grace 1 in early July 2019 (see our story What we know about the ongoing ’tanker war’ for a chronological breakdown of the incidents in the region).
Since the start of the twin threats to the oil earnings-dependent economies of plunging crude oil demand from Covid-19 coronavirus and falling oil prices due to Saudi Arabia reopening its taps, there has existed the potential for increased disruption to the tanker trade from an economically hard-hit Iran.