A missing oil tanker at center of US case was 'hijacked' to Iranian island

How does a whole tanker just vanish and end up off Iran with rumors of “pirates” and the crew safely returning home in the meantime?

Damage is seen on Iranian-owned Sabiti oil tanker sailing in the Red Sea, October 13, 2019 (photo credit: COMPANY VIA WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
Damage is seen on Iranian-owned Sabiti oil tanker sailing in the Red Sea, October 13, 2019
(photo credit: COMPANY VIA WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
A large crude oil tanker that was off the coast of the UAE and went missing on July 5 has been found off the coast of Iran’s Hormuz Island. This is, according to the search by Tanker Trackers, after reports indicated something suspicious had happened with the vessel. But how does a whole tanker just vanish and end up off Iran with rumors of “pirates” and the crew safely returning home in the meantime?
The NGO Human Rights at Sea said earlier this week that the Gulf Sky was detained or “under arrest,” but subsequent reports noted it had left its Port Khor Fakkan anchorage in the Gulf of Oman and moved somewhere. Human Rights at Sea has been seeking to aid the crew since May after an appeal by them.
Some 22 Indian crew members had been “stuck on board” since last year. According to these reports, the tanker was already involved in a controversy because of American sanctions on Iran. The ship flies a flag from the island nation Dominica in the Caribbean. The US government sought a civil forfeiture for $12 million in funds allegedly part of a scheme by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran to obtain the ship.
Then the vessel “disappeared.” Oil tankers don’t just disappear, but they are able turn off their transponders. The Marine Executive earlier this week published a report examining the case, including the legal hassles and the plight off the crew. It now turns out that most of the crew have been able to get back to India, after having been stuck for months aboard the ship.
This all happened as the ship was “taking on fuel surreptitiously the day before” and switched off its AIS transponder so it wouldn’t be tracked. According to the website Splash247, the crew had taken the vessel to Iran. Two crew members are in Iran, the report says; 26 others are home.
Is that the whole story? A 247-meter-long ship took up its anchor and went to Iran?  Reports also indicate the ship was “hijacked.” But hijacked by whom – and why? Is this just a story of a desperate crew sailing the ship to a place off Iran to get away? How did they get back home from Iran between July 5 and 15, during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The saga of this ship is particularly complex. Back in May, two Iranians were charged under US export laws relating to helping Iran evade sanctions. They had supposedly created front companies to buy the Gulf Sky, then called Nautic, in September 2019. The ship had been named Maersk Nautica before becoming “Nautic.” Using front companies, such as one called Taif Mining, a payment was made and the ship’s name changed.
The US Treasury alleged in May 2020 that Amir Dianat, a member of the IRGC Quds Force, was key to creating the front company that violated US Office of Foreign Assets Control designations. The original Treasury report doesn’t mention the ship, only money laundering laws and weapons smuggling of the IRGC and the $12 million forfeiture. The National in the UAE reported at the time the ties to the Gulf Sky and an Oman-based firm.
The story of the “sensational” escape by the crew and the ship being “under arrest” and then “hijacked” to an island off Iran appears to be only the tip of the iceberg of a larger controversy relating to this vessel. Since last year, the Persian Gulf has seen numerous incidents with ships, including the mining of and attacks on six ships in May and June 2019, and Iran’s seizing of the British tanker Stena Impero in July 2019.
The recent case indicates that the Gulf Sky made its way several hundred kilometers to Iran unnoticed between July 5 and 14. This comes amid US-Iran tensions – and the fact that the ship is involved in a dispute with US courts may complicate matters.