Iran's Revolutionary Guard seizes foreign oil tanker, state TV reports
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has seized a foreign ship smuggling fuel in the Gulf, state television quoted the country’s elite force as saying in a statement on Thursday (local time).
- The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah stopped transmitting its location on Sunday
- State TV did not identify the vessel, but flagged that it was intercepted on Sunday
- The US suspects that Iran has seized the tanker
The development contradicts an earlier statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry that said they were simply helping the vessel with a malfunction.
It comes days after an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates disappeared from trackers in Iranian territorial waters.
The seizure forms the latest in a series of developments as tensions mount between the United States and Iran over the unravelling nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah stopped transmitting its location early on Sunday near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it, according to data listed on tracking site Maritime Traffic.
Iran’s state television did not identify the seized vessel or nationalities of the crew, but said it was intercepted on Sunday.
It added the oil tanker had 12 foreign crew members on board and was involved in smuggling about one million litres of fuel from Iranian smugglers to foreign customers.
The report said the oil tanker was intercepted south of Iran’s Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz. Larak is a smaller island just southeast of the larger Qeshm Island.
The seizure of the ship did not immediately appear to directly target any one particular country.
Oil tanker ‘made no distress call’
The move comes days after an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates disappeared. (Supplied: RBC)
A US defence official said that America had suspicions that Iran had seized the MT Riah when its tracker was turned off in the Strait of Hormuz.
An Emirati official said the small oil tanker made no distress call before switching off its tracker.
The ship’s registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, said earlier this week it had sold the ship to another company called Mouj Al-Bahar.
When a man who answered a telephone number registered to the firm was contacted, he said the firm did not own any ships.
The 58-metre MT Riah typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast.
The UAE has been calling for a de-escalation of tensions between the US and Iran in past weeks, but has also lobbied for tougher US policies on Iran and supports the maximum pressure campaign of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since the US unilaterally pulled out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The agreement — signed in 2015 between Iran, US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — eased international sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran temporarily halting its nuclear program.
Mr Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018 and imposed tough sanctions on the country.
Seizure adds another chapter to recent Persian Gulf tensions
The ship’s seizure comes after a standoff last week between the British navy and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all crude oil passes.
The British government said a navy frigate had to warn away the paramilitary vessels from disrupting the passage of a British oil tanker through the strait.
It also comes after British marines helped seize an Iranian supertanker off Gibraltar, a British overseas territory at the southern tip of Spain.
The UK has since said it would facilitate the release of the tanker if Iran can provide guarantees the vessel would not breach European Union sanctions on shipments to Syria.
Iran has recently increased uranium production and enrichment over the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.
The US has sent thousands of additional troops, B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the region amid the heightened tensions.
US on mission to ensure safe passage through Gulf
Prior to the announcement of the tanker’s seizure, US Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said Washington was talking to other countries about freedom of navigation in the Gulf and that it would work “aggressively” to maintain free passage in the region.
“We are currently talking with the international community about the right to freedom of navigation in the Middle East that will include passage to the Strait of Hormuz and passage to the Bab al Mandeb,” Mr McKenzie said.
In May, two Emirati oil tankers were among four tankers attacked, which the US has blamed on Iran.
The UAE has stopped short of blaming any country for the attacks off its coast of Fujairah and maintains that diplomacy is the way forward.
Last month saw two other attacks on oil vessels. Iran denies involvement in any of the vessel attacks.