Iran says it has seized foreign oil tanker in Gulf

Report on state TV says ship was smuggling oil but does not say which country crew are from

Tankers anchored in the strait of Hormuz. The waterway is a vital route for much of the west’s oil.
 Tankers anchored in the strait of Hormuz. The waterway is a vital route for much of the west’s oil. Photograph: Barry Iverson/Alamy

Fears for maritime security in the strait of Hormuz, a vital route for oil shipping, have grown after Iran announced it had impounded a foreign tanker it said was smuggling fuel in the Gulf.

State television quoting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the vessel was intercepted south of Iran’s Larak Island on Sunday after issuing a distress call.

“A foreign vessel smuggling 1m litres of fuel in the Larak Island of the Persian Gulf has been seized,” the station said. “The vessel that Iran towed to its waters after receiving a distress call was later seized with the order from the court as we found out that it was smuggling fuel.”

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The Iranians did not initially identify the ship or its owners, but semi-official news agencies suggested the ship was the Panamanian-flagged MT Riah, a ship that went missing on 14 July and appeared to have been taken into Iranian waters in the strait of Hormuz.

Nothing has been heard of the ship since it stopped transmitting its location in the early hours of Sunday. Iran did confirm on Tuesday, without naming Riah, that it had helped tow an unidentified ship in distress, but gave no further details.

The Revolutionary Guards said in the latest statement that the vessel had been impounded “with an order from the court as we found out that it was smuggling fuel” to foreign ships. The ship is capable of carrying 2m litres and had 12 crew on board. It said it had not impounded any other ship.

It is possible that the seizure of the ship is nothing more than a routine piece of Iranian maritime intelligence work, but in the current heightened tensions, western diplomats will fear it is Iranian diplomatic pressure.Advertisement

Giorgos Beleris, Oil Research Manager for Refinitiv, said that although Riah was small for a tanker and could dock easily, it had been recently operating at anchorages. “This could hint at something potentially shady – we can’t be certain,” he said.

The UK Foreign Office said it was seeking further information on the ship and insisted that freedom of navigation was paramount.

The Iranian seizure could be seen as a tit-for-tat reaction to the seizure of the Iranian-owned and Indian-crewed Grace 1 tanker a fortnight ago by Royal Marines off Gibraltar.

The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is holding talks on Thursday with Gibraltar’s first minister, Fabian Picardo, to discuss what to do about the ship.

In telephone talks at the weekend with the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Hunt offered to release the ship if there was an undertaking that the ship’s oil would not be taken to Syria, a country that is subject to EU sanctions.

The Iranians have said the ship was not bound for Syria, but has refused to name its planned destination..Timeline

Recent tensions in the Gulf

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The UK is deeply sceptical of the Iranian explanation and is awaiting a clear undertaking that the ship will not be sailing to Syria.

Unlike the US, the UK has no general policy of trying to block Iranian oil sales, but Tehran regards the British action as part of an attempt to support the US campaign to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero.

The disputes over the ships are all part of wider manoeuvring between Iran, Europe and the US over the future of the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 and known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA).

Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal a year ago, saying its terms did not restrict Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, but the Europeans have continued to back the deal.

Iran has started to lessen its commitments to JCPOA in the past month in protest at what it regards as Europe’s failure to set up an effective trading mechanism between Iran and Europe to maintain trade. An increase in trade with Europe was always seen by Iran as a central benefit of signing up to the restrictions imposed in the nuclear deal.

The seizure of the latest ship, following a series of attacks and interruptions of shipping over the last fortnight in the Gulf, will put the issue of maritime security in the strait of Hormuz back at the heart of international discussions.

In the last months there have been six unattributed attacks on Gulf shipping as well as an attempt to intercept a British ship in the Gulf a fortnight ago.

The US has sent advanced fighter jets and thousands of extra troops into the Middle East, while attacks on oil tankers and the shooting down of a US military surveillance drone by Iran have added to the fears of armed conflict.

The US has been pushing for an internationally coordinated maritime force to accompany cargo through the strait, and Bahrain has agreed to hold a conference to develop these plans. The Bahrain conference is not due to be held until October and as many as 60 nations are due to attend.

Referring to the US plans to install surveillance and protection for ships passing through the Gulf, Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, said that Washington has already sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region, adding, “the move has disrupted and deterred much of what we feared” with Iranian plots in the area.

Hook said he would meet ambassadors on Friday to promote the US plan to build a maritime coalition to deter further attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf.

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