Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces seize tanker accused of smuggling oil
The seizure comes as tensions mount between the West and Iran over the unravelling nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
Iran has said its Revolutionary Guard seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country.
Hours later, state TV released video showing the vessel to be a United Arab Emirates-based ship that had vanished in Iranian waters over the weekend.
The Panamanian-flagged oil tanker MT Riah stopped transmitting its location overnight on Sunday near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.
Iran’s state television did not at first identify the seized vessel but said it was intercepted on Sunday. It said the oil tanker had 12 foreign crew members on board and was involved in smuggling 1 million litres of fuel from Iranian smugglers to foreign customers.
The report said the oil tanker was intercepted in south of Iran’s Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz.
Hours after that initial report, Iranian TV released footage of the ship surrounded by Guard vessels and showed the registration number painted on its bridge, matching that of the UAE-based MT Riah.
It was not immediately clear whether the seizure was a straightforward attempt by Iran to curb oil smuggling or also an effort to assert its authority in the strait and send a message to its rivals in the region.
The UAE has long lobbied for tougher US policy toward Iran, though more recently it has called for de-escalation.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the seized vessel was at best a “small tanker” and that Iranian forces are cracking down on fuel smuggling daily.
“We live in a very dangerous environment. The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of an abyss,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York. Mr Zarif accused the Trump administration of “trying to starve our people” and “deplete our treasury” through sanctions.
Iranian media reported earlier this month that some 8 million litres of government-subsidised Iranian fuel are smuggled daily through Iran’s borders to other countries where prices are much higher.
Analysts at the Israeli-based maritime risk analytics company Windward said that the Riah has been at sea for the past two years and has a pattern of turning off its location transmitters for days at a time, particularly when entering Iranian waters.
The firm said data suggests that for more than two years that the 58-metre Riah had been clandestinely receiving fuel from an unknown source off the UAE coast and delivering it to other tankers, which then take it to Yemen and Somalia.
No distress calls were made from the Riah, and no ship owner reported a missing vessel.
The ship’s registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, told The Associated Press it had sold the vessel to another company, Mouj Al-Bahar.
Officials in the UAE said the ship was neither UAE-owned nor operated and carried no Emirati personnel.