Sun | Sep 22, 2019

US fears Iran seized UAE-based tanker in Strait of Hormuz

Published:Wednesday | July 17, 2019 | 12:21 AM
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting with a group of clerics in Tehran, Iran, on Tuesday.

DUBAI (AP):

A small oil tanker from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) travelling through the Strait of Hormuz entered Iranian waters and turned off its tracker two days ago, leading the US to suspect that Iran seized the vessel amid heightened tensions in the region, an American defence official said yesterday.

Iran offered no immediate comment on what happened to the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Riah late Saturday night, though an Emirati official acknowledged the vessel sent out no distress call. Oil tankers previously have been targeted in the wider region amid tensions between the US and Iran over its unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.

The concern about the Riah comes as Iran continues its own high-pressure campaign over its nuclear programme, after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord over a year ago.

Recently, Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.

However, those tensions also have seen the US send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Mideast. Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone has added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.

The Riah, a 58-metre (190-foot) oil tanker, typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. However, something happened to the vessel after 11 p.m. on Saturday, according to tracking data.

Captain Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told The Associated Press (AP) yesterday that the tanker hadn’t switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE.

“That is a red flag,” Raja said.

A US defence official later told the AP that the Riah was in Iranian territorial waters near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.

“We certainly have suspicions that it was taken,” the official said. “Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility. But the longer there is a period of no contact ... it’s going to be a concern.”

Separately on Tuesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country will retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil. The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar, over suspicion that it was heading to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions, an operation Khamenei called “piracy” in a televised speech.

“God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response,” he said. He did not elaborate.