Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized an Iraqi oil tanker in the Gulf they said was smuggling fuel and detained seven crewmen, Iran’s state media reported, in a show of power amid heightened tension with the West.
The vessel was intercepted near Farsi Island, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said. The elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has a base on Farsi Island north of the Strait of Hormuz.
“The IRGC’s naval forces seized a foreign oil tanker in the Persian Gulf smuggling fuel for some Arab countries,” Guards commander Ramezan Zirahi told state TV.
The state news agency IRNA, quoting the Guards, said it was an Iraqi ship seized last Wednesday.
Zirahi said it was carrying 700 000 litres of fuel, without giving nationalities of detained crewmen.
“The boats of the IRGC navy were patrolling to control traffic and detect illicit trade when they seized the tanker,” Fars quoted Zirahi as saying, adding the seizure was in co-ordination with Iran’s judicial authorities.
Iran, which has some of the world’s cheapest fuel prices due to state subsidies and the fall of its currency, is fighting rampant fuel smuggling by land to neighbouring countries and by sea to Gulf Arab states.
“The tanker was transferred to Bushehr port, where its fuel was handed to authorities,” Zirahi told TV.
A spokesman for the US Navy Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said they had no information to confirm media reports.
Iran’s English-language Press TV aired a video it said “shows the process through which the IRGC halted the ship and took it into custody”. “The ship was seized in Iranian territorial waters and was transporting diesel,” it added.
Another oil tanker, the Panama-flagged MT Riah, was captured by the elite force last month also for allegedly smuggling fuel.
Tensions have risen between Iran and the West since last year when the United States pulled out of an international agreement curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme in return for easing economic sanctions.
Fuelling fears of a Middle East war with global repercussions, the Guards seized British tanker Stena Impero near the Strait of Hormuz in July for alleged marine violations, two weeks after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar accused of violating sanctions on Syria.
Angered by intensified US sanctions designed to strangle its vital oil trade and the failure of Britain and European parties to the agreement to salvage the pact, Tehran decreased commitments to the nuclear deal.
Iran threatened to block all exports through the Strait, if countries heed US calls to stop buying Iranian oil. A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait from Middle East crude producers to major markets.
“The Persian Gulf is like a tinderbox and the explosion of a firecracker can lead to a huge disaster,” the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Guards commander Brigadier General Ahmadreza Pourdastan as saying.
“All countries with interests in the region are not willing to see a new regional crisis.”
After attacks in May and June on oil tankers – blamed by Washington on Tehran, which denied responsibility – Trump has tried to forge a military coalition to secure Gulf waters, though European allies are loath to join for fear of provoking open conflict.
European parties to the deal – Britain, France and Germany – appealed for diplomatic moves to defuse the crisis and have been trying to salvage the pact by exploring ways to shield Iran’s economy from US sanctions.
Tehran called on them to accelerate efforts or it will further decrease commitments to the agreement.
Britain said on July 25 it started sending warships to escort all British-flagged vessels through the Strait.
Iran repeatedly said it will not allow any disturbance in shipping in the key oil transport waterway, claiming responsibility for the security of the Strait.
In an apparent bid to calm tensions, Shi’ite-dominated Iran called for improving relations with regional Sunni rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Last month, Iran and the UAE revived maritime security talks in Tehran, off since 2013. Iranian media reported Iranian and Qatari coast guards will meet to “improve maritime and border co-operation”.