Mystery surrounds Iran's seizure of oil tanker in Strait of Hormuz

Josie Ensor
Iranian soldiers take part in the

Mystery surrounds the apparent seizure by Iran of a small tanker in the Persian Gulf, after Revolutionary Guards claimed it had towed a foreign oil tanker for “smuggling fuel”.

The vessel, a 1,899 dwt tanker, was reported to have been intercepted south of Iran's Larak Island in the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Sunday and its 12 crew members arrested.

“In a bid to identify and fight organised smuggling . . . the patrol boats of the Guards’ naval forces in the Persian Gulf abruptly stopped one of the foreign vessels which carried 1million litres of smuggled fuel,” a statement by the Guards’ naval forces said on Thursday.  

Hormuz: the strategic strait that may plunge US and Iran into war

However, the circumstances surrounding the incident were murky.

No country is yet to claim ownership of the Panama-flagged MT Riah, which went missing over the weekend. She appears to have changed management several times in the last few months. The last known company, KBR Petrochem, could not be reached for comment.

The MT Riah, which began her journey on July 5 near a port off the coast of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, went missing on July 14. The UAE, where Riah is based, has denied she was their vessel, as did the UK.

She was then tracked near the coast of Ras al-Khaimah before changing course and travelling north towards Iranian waters, after which it stopped transmitting its signal on Sunday at about 4.30am local time.

Iran claimed it came to the assistance of the disabled tanker after detecting a distress call. But no other nation has reported receiving a call.

It was also not clear where the oil had come from, or where it was ultimately heading. Tracker MarineTraffic.com did not have a destination port for the Riah.

According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data the tanker made no port calls over the past year, had 27 days of dark activities and met 55 times with another vessel, and had trading patterns characteristic of clandestine ship-to-ship transfers.

It said turning off the automatic identification system, known as “going dark”, is frequently done by tankers loaded with Iranian crude, in order to avoid detection and evade US sanctions.

The Riah appeared to be receiving fuel from an unknown source offshore of the UAE, and then transhipping it to other tankers which usually carried it to Somalia or war-torn Yemen, where the UAE and Iran are backing different sides of the conflict. 

Some even suggested the seizure was a “hoax” by Iran, put on for a home audience to look tough in response to Britain’s impounding of its Grace 1 supertanker off Gibraltar earlier this month.

“Our analysis right now is that nothing has actually happened,” tweeted TankerTrackers.com, a company that uses satellite imagery to identify tankers. “This seems to be an attempt to boost the price of oil after the recent news (which Iran denied) that US was in talks with Iran. There is no visual or data evidence to support a vessel being apprehended.”

The UK accused Iran of carrying oil meant for the sanctioned Syrian regime, claims Tehran has denied.

Days after threatening a response, Revolutionary Guards harassed a British Navy ship in the Strait which had been shadowing a UK oil tanker. 

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

Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, appeared to be attempting to de-escalate tensions by suggesting last weekend that the Grace 1 could be released if the Islamic Republic could prove it would not end up in Syria.

Mr Hunt was in talks with Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s first minister, on Thursday to discuss what should be done.

President Donald Trump, who has surrounded himself with hawkish advisers on Iran, also looked to be trying to defuse growing tensions.

Mr Trump appointed Senator Rand Paul, who is known for his opposition to US interventions abroad, as an emissary to Tehran and asked him to sit down with Mohamed Javid Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister in an attempt to reduce tensions.

Mr Paul opposed the withdrawal of Washington from the nuclear agreement, while John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has long wanted regime change in Tehran and has urged Mr Trump to keep up “maximum pressure”.