Published On: Mon, Aug 12th, 2019

Of silent ships: keeping track of information that passes in the night

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While it was news that caused no more than a brief stir in British corporate-media, that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a third ship in the Persian Gulf at the end of July allows broader scope by which to appreciate the prior seizure of the MT Riah – a craft that was shrouded by a good deal of mystery at the time of its capture, and that has been the subject of a number of previous FBEL articles [the most recent can be found here]. Moreover, this new incident of detainment offers some support for the idea that was being explored in said articles regarding the Riah as a diplomatically sensitive object that wasn’t at all what it was said to be in a cover story that the Iranians proffered without any contradiction from the US and UK.

Like the Riah, this newly detained vessel – which has not been named and so shall here be referred to as TankerX – was alleged to have been smuggling fuel oil. Like the Riah, TankerX was stopped and seized by the Iranians (on 31st July) several days before there was an announcement (4th August). Likewise, the name of TankerX was not acknowledged by the Iranians – the Riah was suspected as being the victim because of prior warning, and confirmed as such when the Iranians released images of the vessel. No such images of TankerX have been issued whereby a name could be discovered, so let us note, then, that there is some sensitivity about the ship’s identity. Let us conclude that it probably does not suit Iran, or other parties, for the seizure of this ship to create a lot of unwanted media attention.

It was suggested in one of the previous FBEL articles on this subject that the seizure of the Riah was “for the general game”, meaning it was a diplomatically sensitive object, an indirect tool of coercion that could not be openly used to frame Iran as being aggressive (when acting in self-defence), and a subtle means to bring about required leverage in negotiations. Many similarities between the cases make it appear as if TankerX could resemble the Riah in the most significant of senses, and public reaction from Iran and Britain certainly does nothing in terms of refutation. Moreover, there is history that could explain the presence of TankerX in Iranian waters (presuming that that is where she was seized) as a direct consequence of intentions other than making criminal gain.

First of all, please consider a snippet from BBC coverage:

BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher says that though the cargo [of TankerX] is relatively small [700,000 litres], the seizure will inevitably raise tensions further in the region.

It is interesting to see that this correspondent would think that a matter of local policing would exacerbate tensions between Tehran and extra-regional actors who are interposing in the Middle East (because that is actually what is meant).

The next excerpt reports certain significant remarks made on 5th August, the day after Iran announced that TankerX had been seized:

“Iran used to forgo some maritime offences in … (the) Gulf but will never close (its) eyes anymore,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a televised news conference in Tehran.

“Iran is responsible for the security and safety of the Strait of Hormuz and the region.”

If the seizure of TankerX was an expression of a new determination in Iran to crack down on “maritime offences” that hitherto had had a blind eye turned to them, then was TankerX really involved in smuggling? The question actually being asked is, would Iran have normally ignored smuggling? Consider the fact that TankerX was seized off of Farsi – an island which is a considerable distance north of the Strait of Hormuz, and which happens to host an IRGC naval base. There can be no denying that this would be an odd place to want to conduct any smuggling.

Moreover, the location in itself does suggest that the TankerX incident is different in nature to the seizing of the Stena Impero, which was about asserting Iranian administrative dominance in the crucial bottle neck waters between Iran and UAE and Oman. Occurrences in the waters around Farsi would not necessarily have any effect on access to and through the sea lanes of Hormuz – all the more reason why the BBC correspondent’s analysis is superficially odd.

Now for the history: Farsi island was where a number of US riverine boat crews were detained after they had blundered into Iranian territorial waters in 2016. These US Navy sailors actually passed Farsi without expecting it and knowing what it was. Their mission had ultimately been to patrol the coast line of the Persian Gulf employing listening equipment – presumably pointed at Iran. The vessels, three in all, were on their way from Kuwait to Bahrain to pick up their spying gear when one suffered an engine problem. While this of course made the mission vulnerable, it appears that the vessels had already obtusely strayed into Iranian waters because of an inability to navigate properly. While excuses have been offered, whether the bungling was due to a technical problem, or one of the poor calibre of US military personnel is beside the point; the crucial issue is that, when one reads a fuller account of the incident, it is very evident that the fiasco was caused by multiple and compounding aspects of the “crisis of readiness” that the US military is suffering from (and of which the author has written before). And while this readiness crisis has clearly not dissipated nor will do so any time soon (a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft fell out of the sky as recently as the last day of July), we can perhaps assume that the US military would have capacity enough to modify the spying mission it wanted to accomplish – assuming that it would want to continue to execute it – so that it didn’t fail so miserably; or, in fact, contract it out to people who could do it. At the very least, we can take it as fact that patrolling the Persian Gulf with listening equipment represents an activity that Anglo-globalist military intelligence thinks is necessary in relation to Iran. This is perhaps what we need to bear in mind when thinking about the Riah and TankerX.

It is true that Iran released footage taken on board TankerX which showed hatches opened on deck to reveal fuel oil swilling about in storage tanks, but one might ask if this is contraband, of is it the means to stay at sea for a long period of time? Unlike the Riah (which the US showed a great deal of interest in), no alarm was raised about TankerX ahead of Iran’s declaration that the vessel had been seized:

The US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it did not have information to confirm the reports. Maritime tracking experts also said they did not have any immediate information about the incident or the vessel.

This information indicates that TankerX had its transponder off. Was TankerX, then, like the Riah’s sister ship, the Hayla, which has been in the region but has not been trackable since April 4th? Indeed, is TankerX (a privately owned Iraqi ship) the Hayla itself?

Because in the end it is not a metal hulk that would be valuable in the game that is suspected here of being played, we should note that TankerX has an anonymous crew – seven this time, and all of different nationalities – as did the Riah. Of course, the reader may well protest that we do know that 9 “Indians” were released from Iranian custody – but is it true? Well, a small detail in an Independent article suggests that it isn’t.

Furious with the additional sanctions, Tehran decreased its commitments to the deal which it has threatened to leave, and promised to block all exports through the Strait of Hormuz, if countries heeded Washington’s calls to stop buying Iranian oil.

It then captured Panama-flagged MT Riah in the Strait for allegedly smuggling fuel. The crew were finally released.

But shortly afterwards the Guards seized British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the same area for alleged marine violations. It came two weeks after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar accused of violating sanctions on Syria.

Hopefully, the reader managed to catch the throwaway line. The truth is, there is no information that confirms the Independent’s assertion that the crew of the Riah has been released. Iran has never officially commented on any of the twelve captives, and has never confirmed the release of nine, which India (in return for approval or support for its escapade in Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps) claimed belonged to it. (That nine have been released might well be true, but it is felt hereabouts that they weren’t released to India). So, what this possibly represents is a state of affairs in British corporate-media whereby, on orders from above, there is no interest whatsoever in exposing the Riah to any more public scrutiny. The case is closed as far as a corporate-media audience should be concerned. And once again, for ensuring the story slips without trouble into the memory hole, the British Government can rely on a widespread inability for critical thought or even to concentrate, because of course the big problem with this story is that given that the crew of the Riah were accused of smuggling, they would have had to have been let off scot free. Are we, who write and read FBEL, supposed to believe that Iran doesn’t punish criminals? Obviously, whatever happened to the crew of the Riah, it is not for public consumption – and neither is whatever has happened to the crew of TankerX. In fact, the whole story [i.e. the two seperate ones conjoined by similarities as they are] by necessity must disappear.

And yet we can appreciate what is being kept from the public domain by the gathering of material around the omission so as to outline its features. More simply put, what is here being discussed is information generated by reaction to the TankerX incident. We’ve already looked at a couple of pieces, but there is stuff that is more substantial. One example is from none other than the Financial Times, and an article headlined: “British guards pulled from Gulf ships over Iran capture fears”. (To read the article, search for the title, and follow the link through; this way one doesn’t have to subscribe to view the piece). The article was published 9th August, and explains that there are fears “that Iran could try to capture UK nationals as tensions soar in the Middle East”. This concern has been expressed by “people in the shipping industry and a US government official”. On the surface, the article is specifically talking about UK nationals acting as private security who are guarding vessels (“traditionally… former members of elite British forces, such as the Royal Marines, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS”), but consider this extract:

“Everyone in the UK shipping industry seems to believe the Iranians want British crew,” one person said. They asked not to be named given the tensions surrounding shipping. “That’s the impression we have, given the events that have happened and the feedback from people on board.”

People on board which ship, exactly? There were no British on board the Stena Impero. Is this unnamed source talking about information from a debriefed member of the Riah crew?

Another story that lends information through reaction is how the UK has joined the US-led operation to escort vessels through the Straits of Hormuz. This represents a change of tack from the British, who were asking for European assistance to be consistent with a commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The announcement of the change of plan for the Royal Navy, reported by the BBC on 5th August, comes a day after the Iranians confessed to having seized TankerX. It looks like the UK reacted to the Iranian act.

Now, at the crux of understanding the information is to also comprehend what the British Government would be hoping to achieve, given that it won’t be prised away from the JCPOA. To consider this, we need to adopt the premise that there is in fact no risk to legitimate commercial shipping as it passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Even if the Iranians had intended to seize the Stena Impero (and here at FBEL it has always been thought that the Iranians had no need to react in this way, except that the opportunity to take the ship dropped into their lap), it doesn’t mean that any more ships are in danger, or that there is further intent along the same lines. As of 6th August, according to the Standard:

So far Montrose and Duncan have escorted 47 tankers through these contested waters, through which a fifth of the world’s oil exports pass.

The Iranians are not mixing it with the Royal Navy at every opportunity in order to bag another piece of commercial shipping, and this escort duty is really for appearances sake – to help the Americans sell a picture to a domestic audience of a threat to the international community from Iran. The American reaction to Britain’s entry into what is nothing so broad as desired, but only effectively a “coalition of the two” speaks volumes:

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Defense said: “We welcome the decision of the UK to participate in the international maritime security construct to enhance maritime domain awareness, promote safe passage, and enhance freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf, strait of Hormuz, Arabian Sea, and Bab el-Mandeb.”

The Americans have only dedicated two ships to this exercise, so evidently it is understood in those quarters too that Iran does not want to systematically seize commercial shipping. While the warships are for the illusion, what the Americans do have, of course, is presence by other means: aircraft and coastal bases. What Britain really wants, we might suspect, is help securing its sensitive assets, and the Americans had a price that Britain wouldn’t previously pay.

Update 13th August:

News today that Iran thinks the release of the Grace 1 is imminent. Note, no mention of the Stena Impero in a quid pro quo deal, but the suggestion is that legal pressure has been applied. Of course, one only has to read between the lines:

“Britain is interested in releasing Iran’s oil tanker Grace 1 … following the exchange of some documents, we hope the release will take place soon,” the deputy head of Iran’s ports and Maritime Organisation, Jalil Eslami, said in remarks reported by IRNA news agency.

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