Iran says it has seized a foreign tanker with 12 crew aboard that it accuses of smuggling oil in the Persian Gulf, according to a statement from the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps carried by the state media agency Fars.
The statement did not identify the tanker or its nationality but the seizure comes following the disappearance of a Panama-flagged tanker four days ago, which U.S. officials have said they suspect may have been taken by Iran. Tensions have been mounting in the waters around the Strait of Hormuz in recent weeks after Iran threatened to retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian tanker by Britain near Gibraltor.
The IRGC statement on Thursday said one of its patrols had captured the unnamed tanker which it said was carrying 1 million liters of smuggled oil that it had picked up from small Iranian ships and was sailing towards foreign ships when it was stopped. The ship was seized south of Lark Island in the Strait of Hormuz, according to the statement.
“During the patrolling mission in the Persian Gulf aiming at the discovery and confrontation with organized smuggling on Sunday, 14th of July2019, the IRGC’s first region navy patrol made the seizure of a foreign vessel by surprise after it made sure the vessel was carrying one million liters smuggled fuel. The seizure was coordinated with the judiciary,” the IRGC statement said according to Fars.
Speculation quickly emerged that the tanker was the MT Riah, a Panama-flagged vessel that disappeared from ship tracking monitors on July 14 while close to Iran’s Qeshm island as it transited the Strait of Hormuz. The Riah, a small tanker, has not switched on its transponder since then, according to the maritime tracking site, Fleetmon.
U.S. officials this week said they suspected the Riah may have been seized by Iran, though they were not certain, saying the ship could have suffered technical problems. Following the U.S. comments, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, on Monday said that the Riah was towed to Iranian waters for repairs after it ran into technical issues and requested help. Mousavi did not identify the vessel either and said more details would be announced later.
The Riah was initially identified as belonging to the United Arab Emirates but the UAE’s foreign ministry has issued statements this week denying it owns or operates the ship.
The incident comes after the two series of attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf last month, sending tensions spiking amid the ongoing confrontation between Iran and the U.S. following the U.S.’ exit from the 2015 nuclear deal. Those tensions intensified further after Britain seized an Iranian oil tanker, the VLCC Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar on July 4, prompting warnings from experts that Iran might seek to seize a tanker in retaliation.
The UK alleged the tanker was violating European Union sanctions by trying to take oil to Syria, but Iran has denied the claim saying that no vessel with the size of their tanker could berth at any port in Syria.
Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to retaliate against the UK over the seizure in recent days and last week Britain said one of its warships was forced to intervene to deter Iranian small military boats that approached a British tanker transiting the strait.