Here’s What We Know About The Missing Tanker Iran Now Says It Has Seized
The Iranians initially said the ship had broken down and had asked for assistance, but now claim it was involved in smuggling fuel.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, says it seized an unnamed foreign tanker in the Strait of Hormuz last weekend for allegedly being involved in an operation to smuggle fuel oil out of the country. The IRGC subsequently released video footage that confirms the ship in question is the Panama-flagged Riah, which turned off its transponder and effectively went missing on Saturday. This also follows Iran's harassment of a British oil tanker, British Heritage, as it passed through the Strait last week and comes amid growing tensions between Iran and the international community, in general.
On July 18, 2019, the IRGC released an official statement regarding the seizure. The organization says that its naval arm seized the tanker on July 14, 2019, that there were 12 foreign crew members aboard at the time, and that it was carrying one million liters – just over 264,000 gallons – of fuel. The ship was south of the Iranian island of Larak in the Strait of Hormuz, which links to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, when IRGC personnel seized it.
The IRGC alleges that small civilian ships, commonly known in the region as dhows, had brought fuel illicitly to the ship and that the crew intended to leave the region and conduct further ship-to-ship transfers to then offload its fuel for shipment on to unspecified destinations. It is possible that the tanker was actually involved in illicit activity, but Iran has yet to present any hard evidence of this.
The Iranian government heavily subsidizes gasoline, in particular, which has created a significant incentive for individuals to buy it at low prices in Iran and then smuggle it elsewhere to then sell it at a profit. This has created an odd situation where Iran, which routinely experiences shortages of gasoline due to limited domestic refining capacity and international sanctions, has to further contend with smugglers shipping what is available out of the country.
The IRGC did not initially name the tanker it seized over the weekend, but it did say that it had a total capacity of two million liters, though it was only carrying one million liters at the time. Even before the IRGC released video footage showing the tanker, ship spotters noted that this would match up well with the estimated capacity of the 223-foot long Riah.
This helps explain some of the mystery surrounding what had happened to that ship, but it also raises new questions, including about whether smuggling allegations. This Panama-flagged tanker had been sailing in the Persian Gulf of July 13, 2019, before online ship tracking software showed it slow down and come to a stop in the Strait of Hormuz. It subsequently switched off its transponder.
Three days earlier, at trio IRGC boats had harassed the British-flagged tanker British Heritage in the Strait of Hormuz, so there was immediate speculation that the Iranians had captured Riah. The incident surrounding the British tanker appeared to be in retaliation for U.K. authorities seizing the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar over sanctions violations on July 4, 2019.
Where things started to get confusing was when Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on July 16, 2019, that Iran had towed an unnamed foreign oil tanker into Iranian waters after that ship had experienced a technical problem and issued a distress call. "A foreign oil tanker encountered problem in the Persian Gulf due to technical failure, and the Iranian forces, in accordance with the international regulations, rushed to help it after receiving a mayday distress call, and pulled it toward the Iranian waters with tugboat to carry out the necessary repairs," Mousavi explained.
This official statement came two days after the IRGC now says that it detained Riah over the smuggling allegations. Also on July 16, 2019, an anonymous United Arab Emirates official told The Washington Post that Riah had not issued a distress call.
Who exactly owns Riah is also murky. Publicly available information says Prime Tankers, LLC in Dubai is the operator. However, the same UAE official who told The Post that the tanker had not issued a distress call also denied that Emirati companies owned or operated the ship or that there were any Emirati nationals among its crew.
It is worth noting that six tankers were victims of attacks off the coast of the UAE in two separate incidents, one in May and another in June, but only one of those ships was actually flagged in the UAE. The U.S. government has alleged that Iran or its regional proxies were responsible for both sets of attacks, but officials in the UAE have downplayed this. Earlier this month, the UAE also announced that it was drawing down its forces in Yemen and would shift its focus away from fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that country and instead concentrate on operations against the Al Qaeda and ISIS franchises there.
Curiously, the U.K. government says that it is working to get more information about the Riah and Iran's conflicting claims, according to the BBC. This could point to a British owner or operator or that U.K. nationals are among the ship's crew. If any of that is true, it could indicate that the IRGC may have targeted the tanker in order to follow through on its threats of tit-for-tat retaliation over the continued detention of Grace 1 in Gibraltar.
On July 13, 2019, U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt had also revealed that British authorities could be willing to release the Iranian tanker if authorities in Iran could provide assurances that the ship was not heading to Syria. Officials in Gibraltar say that they seized Grace 1 because it was heading to a Syrian port, which would violate European Union sanctions. Iran has denied this, but has also declined to provide any evidence that the ship was actually sailing to another destination.
The detention of Riah also comes as tensions between Iran and the international community are steadily growing, in general. Beyond the matter of Grace 1, Iranian authorities have been increasingly critical of the United Kingdom, as well as France and Germany, accusing them of failing to abide by the terms of the controversial agreement over Iran's nuclear program.
Iran now says it is enriching uranium above the limits outlined in that deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), leading the United States and others to assert that Iran is putting itself closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon. The United States pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018.
There remains no clear evidence that Iran is looking to build nuclear weapons. Iranian authorities also appear to be taking deliberate, easily reversible steps on enrichment in an attempt to push the remaining parties to the JCPOA, which also includes Russia and China, to offer new concessions, including sanctions relief.
The Riah's seizure, whether it turns out to be legitimately over smuggling or not, as also follows months of escalating concerns about the safety of commercial shipping passing through the Strait of Hormuz and tensions between the United States and Iran have grown since May. The situation came to head in June, when the IRGC shot down a U.S. Navy drone flying over the Gulf of Oman, which in turn almost resulted in American strikes on targets in Iran.
"The United States strongly condemns the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with safe passage in and around the Strait of Hormuz," the U.S. State Department said in response to the IRGC's announcement that it had seized Riah. "Iran must cease this illicit activity and release the reportedly seized crew and vessel immediately."
The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer has also just sailed into the Persian Gulf, but, according to the U.S. military, this is unrelated to the situation surrounding Riah specifically. The U.S. government is already in the process of crafting a new international coalition that will step up patrols in the region to monitor for nefarious Iranian activity and guard commercial shipping, but this plan is still very much a work in progress by all accounts.
"We're engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford told reporters on July 10, 2019. "So I think probably over the next couple of weeks we'll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we'll work directly with the militaries to identify the specific capabilities that'll support that."
Separately, the United States is also continuing to bolster its own forces in the region, including a recently reported buildup in at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, which CNN was first to report on July 17, 2019. Since May 2019, there has been a steady stream of additional U.S. combat aircraft, including F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, U.S. Navy ships, and other American forces, into the region.
The U.S. government is otherwise continuing with its policy of "maximum pressure," which includes a steadily expanding sanctions regime against Iranian entities and those linked to the country. On July 18, 2019, the United States hit four Iraqis, including two leaders of Iranian-backed militias, with sanctions over human rights violations.
With regards to the case of the Riah specifically, it will be very interesting to see how that situation develops now that Iran has admitted to having detained the tanker and what impact that might have on overall regional tensions.
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