A Game of Tankers: Multiple ships seized as situation in Middle East edges toward conflict

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CHESAPEAKE BAY - OCTOBER 5: A CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopter assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU), lands on the flight deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19). Mesa Verde is underway in preparation to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in Haiti in response to Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Joshua M. Tolbert/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The BBC is reporting that forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have followed through on threats to seize a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The Stena Impero has apparently been taken over by the Iranian forces, directed away from its destination in Saudi Arabia, and is currently bound for Iran with 23 crew still aboard.

This follows an incident on July 4 in which British Marines boarded and detained a tanker near Gibraltar after suspecting it of breaching EU sanctions by carrying Iranian oil to Syria. That ship, the Grace 1, is still being held under U.K. control. 

Since the capture of the Grace 1, Iranian forces have tried, and failed, to board another U.K. tanker. But the Stena Impero was taken in international waters on Friday, apparently by parties aboard small speedboats. 

It also appears that Iran has captured the Panamanian-flagged tanker Riah, after initially claiming the ship was halted in their waters because of mechanical issues.

This situation is developing rapidly, and comes on the heels of a series of clashes between the U.S. amphibious landing ship Boxer and smaller Iranian craft, that included several close passes from helicopters and ended with the apparent shooting down of an Iranian drone. Tensions in the region remain very high, and the possibility of a military strike on Iran from the U.S., the U.K., or both would appear to be increasing.