Iranian special forces seize cargo vessel in a key shipping lane, state media reports

Iranian special forces seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping lane to the Persian Gulf, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

Navy special forces from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps used a helicopter to board and seize a container ship, IRNA news reported, adding that the MSC Aries was being transferred to Iranian territorial waters.

Video on the state-owned news network Press TV showed what it said were people using a rope to drop onto the ship. NBC News could not independently verify the footage.

The move could escalate tensions in a region reeling from the war in Gaza and a recent strike, suspected to have been carried out by Israel, that killed senior Iranian military officers. Since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 terror attack and mass hostage taking and Israel’s subsequent full-scale assault on the Gaza Strip, more than 33,000 people have been killed and 75,000 others have been injured.

And attacks by Iran-backed Houthi militants on ships in the Red Sea have already rocked global trade as several major shipping lines and oil transporters suspended their services through the waterway.

As companies avoid the Suez Canal, which feeds into the Red Sea, and opt instead to go around Africa to get to the Indian Ocean, it can add up to 14 days to a shipping route, incurring higher fuel costs. And since ships take a longer time to get to their destinations, delays in container and commodity deliveries are inevitable.

IRNA said the Portuguese-flagged ship was operated by the Zodiac shipping company, which is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. Zodiac said in a statement that the ship is managed and operated by the U.K.-based shipping company, MSC, which confirmed Saturday that the MSC Aries had been “boarded by Iranian authorities via helicopter.” The shipping company also said there were 25 crew members onboard and that it is working with “relevant authorities” to ensure their safety.

Iranian authorities did not immediately issue a public statement on the incident.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations agency said on X that the MSC Aries had been seized 50 nautical miles northeast of the Fujairah, an area close to the Strait of Hormuz that forms the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

When asked by NBC News, the Israeli government said it had no comment on the ship’s seizure. But Israel Katz, the country’s foreign minister, said on X that Iran was “now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law.”

In a separate statement Saturday that was not in response to the incident unfolding in the Strait of Hormuz, Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said that Iran would “bear the consequences for choosing to escalate the situation any further.”

“Israel is on high alert. We have increased our readiness to protect Israel from further Iranian aggression. We are also prepared to respond,” he said.

The attack comes after a strike, suspected to have been carried out by Israel, on the Iranian consular building in the Syrian capital of Damascus earlier this month. Israel did not take responsibility for that strike, but Tehran vowed revenge.

Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior member of the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite foreign espionage group, was killed in the blast. He was the most senior Iranian official to be killed since Gen. Qassem Soleimani was targeted by an American airstrike in 2020.

Five military advisers in the IRGC, Iran’s immensely powerful military and political organization, were also killed in the attack. While Israel and Iran have avoided direct conflict for years, the IRGC has helped Tehran wage a shadow war with Israel across the Middle East.

After the attack, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said at a prayer ceremony celebrating the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Wednesday that Israel “must be punished, and it will be punished.” Since the building destroyed was a consular building, he said, it amounted to an attack on Iranian soil.

The United States has signaled its support for Israel and worked to persuade Iran to stop short of a significant escalation. While increasingly critical of the way Israel is pursuing the war in Gaza, President Joe Biden has pledged that America’s “commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad.”

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