August 21, 2019

Iran Says It Seized Foreign Oil Tanker, Escalating Regional Tensions

Iran Says It Seized Foreign Oil Tanker, Escalating Regional Tensions

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran has seized a foreign oil tanker, Iranian news media reported on Thursday, days after a United Arab Emirates vessel disappeared, raising the stakes in the running conflict that has pitted Iran against some of its regional neighbors and the United States.

Several state news organizations in Iran reported the seizure of the tanker, based on a statement from the Revolutionary Guards, which claimed that the ship was smuggling one million liters of oil. The Iranian state news agency Al Alam reported that the Revolutionary Guards seized the ship on Sunday.

The reports did not identify the tanker or its nationality, so it was not immediately clear whether the statement referred to the Emirati ship, the Riah, which has not been heard from since it was traveling in the Persian Gulf late Saturday.

In its statement, the Revolutionary Guards denied Western news reports about a tanker seized over the weekend, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported — an apparent reference to the Emirati vessel, indicating that the tanker seized on Sunday was a different ship.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Iranian forces over the weekend had come to the aid of a ship in distress and towed it to shore for repairs. The ministry did not identify the ship or the nation it hailed from, making it unclear in that case, as well, whether the vessel was the missing Emirati tanker.

There has been widespread speculation that the Riah was taken by Iran. The country has long been at odds with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both American allies that support opposing sides in the civil war in Yemen.

Last year, President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program, reimposing economic sanctions that had been suspended under the deal. He imposed new sanctions this year.

Iranian officials have threatened retaliation, including possible disruption of shipments from the gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, which carries about 20 percent of the world’s oil.

American officials have blamed Iran for apparent attacks on tankers in May and June, which followed the new sanctions that aimed to cut off Iran’s ability to sell oil, a pillar of its economy.

After those penalties were imposed, Iran warned that it would step back from compliance with the deal, and in the past month it has exceeded the agreement’s limits on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on how highly it could enrich the metal.

Last month, Iran shot down an American surveillance drone that it said had violated its airspace; United States officials said the aircraft was over international waters. In response, Mr. Trump ordered, then called off, a military strike against Iran.

Two weeks ago, British forces seized an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, charging that it was violating European Union sanctions against Syria. Iranian officials called for the seizure of a British ship as retribution, and the British Navy reported last week that one of its ships had chased away Iranian boats that were trying to impede a British tanker.

Several Iranian news organizations said the seizure took place near Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz. But one outlet, Mehr, said it occurred about 400 miles to the northwest, near Kharg Island.

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