TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acknowledged on Saturday that Iran took two Greek oil tankers last month in helicopter-launched raids in the Persian Gulf.
The confiscations were retaliation for Greece’s role in the United States (US) seizure of crude oil from an Iranian-flagged tanker the same week in the Mediterranean Sea over violating Washington’s harsh sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
“They steal Iranian oil off the Greek coast, then our brave men who don’t fear death respond and seized the enemy’s oil tanker,” Khamenei said during an 80-minute speech on the anniversary of the death of the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “But they use their media empire and extensive propaganda to accuse Iran of piracy.”
“Who is the pirate? You stole our oil, we took it back from you. Taking back a stolen property is not called stealing,” he added.
The seizures ratcheted up tensions between Iran and the West already simmering over Iran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal.
Tehran has been enriching more uranium, causing concern that negotiators won’t find a way back to the accord and raising the risk of a wider war.
Iran’s seizure of the tankers was the latest in a string of hijackings and explosions to roil a region that includes the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes.
The incidents began after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members in 2021.
Iranian hijackers also stormed and briefly captured a Panama-flagged asphalt tanker off the United Arab Emirates last year and briefly seized and held a Vietnamese tanker in November.
Tehran denies carrying out the attacks but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West has played out in the region’s volatile waters.
In 2019, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero after the United Kingdom detained an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar.
Iran released the tanker months later as London also released the Iranian vessel.