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

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.”

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.

Speaking to reporters in New York, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, dismissed the incident as a routine marine policing matter.

He said: “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.”


In the current heightened tensions, western diplomats will fear the seizure of the ship is an Iranian attempt to exert diplomatic pressure.

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.

On Thursday, the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and Boris Johnson, the expected new prime minister, held talks with Gibraltar’s first minister, Fabian Picardo, to discuss what to do about the Grace 1.

Picardo revealed he had met with Iranian officials in London to discuss how “to de-escalate all issues arising”.

In telephone talks with Zarif at the weekend, 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.

(May 12, 2019) 

The UAE says four commercial ships off its eastern coast 'were subjected to sabotage operations'.

(May 14, 2019) 

Yemen's Houthi rebels launch a drone attack on Saudi Arabia, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service. Saudi Arabia subsequently blames Iran for the attack.

(May 19, 2019) 

A rocket lands near the US embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, without harming anyone. It's not clear who is behind the attack, but after the initial reports, Donald Trump tweets: 'If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!'

(June 12, 2019) 

Saudi Arabia says 26 people were wounded in an attack by Yemen's Houthi rebels on an airport in the kingdom's south-western town of Abha.

(June 13, 2019) 

Two oil tankers near the strategic strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked in an assault that left one ablaze and adrift. 44 sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the US navy assisted.

(June 20, 2019) 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards say they have shot down what they called a US 'spy' drone they claim was flying in in the country’s airspace. The US military confirm one of its drones has been taken down, but say it was in international airspace.  

(June 21, 2019) 

Donald Trump reportedly gives approval for the US military to launch strikes on Iran in retaliation for the loss of the drone, before pulling back at the last minute.

(June 25, 2019) 

The Iranian and US presidents trade insults, with Hassan Rouhani suggesting that Donald Trump suffered from a “mental disorder” and Trump once more threatening Iran with “obliteration”.

(July 5, 2019) 

Iran summons UK ambassador over an incident off Gibraltar as Royal Marines seize a tanker, Grace 1, the UK suspects of carrying oil to Syria.

(July 8, 2019) 

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the body tasked with verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, verifies that Tehran has breached the agreed 3.67% limit for enriched uranium.

(July 11, 2019) 

The UK government says three Iranian boats were warned off by the frigate HMS Montrose after Iranian boats 'attempted to impede' a British oil tanker in strait of Hormuz. Tehran denies involvement.

(July 19, 2019) 

In a major escalation, Iran seizes the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker, off its coast. Iranian officials later make it clear that the capture was in retaliation for the capture of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 earlier in July.

(August 15, 2019) 

Despite US attempts in the courts to prevent it, Gibraltar says it will free oil tanker at centre of the Iran row. Iran gives assurances the oil is not destined for Syria, where selling it would breach international sanctions against 

(September 10, 2019) 

Britain accuses Iran of breaching those assurances after Tehran acknowledged the oil had been sold, and the reflagged tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously known as Grace 1, had reached its final destination after the ship was photographed off the coast of Syria.

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 (JCPA).

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 the EU’s failure to set up an effective 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 expected 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 Washington had already sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region, adding that “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.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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