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.

Experts suggested the amount of cargo on board was so insignificant - just 6,000 barrels of crude oil - that it was likely Tehran only towed the vessel to put on a show of strength after Britain impounded an Iranian supertanker off Gibraltar - carrying two million barrels - earlier this month.

Mohammd Javad Zarif, Iran's Foreign Minister, told reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York: “It’s not a tanker. It’s a small ship carrying a million litres, not a million barrels, of oil. We do it every other day. These are people who are smuggling our fuel.

"This is … one of the things that we do in the Persian Gulf, because of the heavy subsidies that we provide for our own fuel products,” he said.

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 supertanker 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”.

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