With tensions already high around the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranians have upped the ante … or at least so they say. Their state media reported that the IRGC had seized a tanker on a mission to smuggle oil through the Persian Gulf. The seizure reportedly took place in Iranian waters, and the ship was “foreign,” according to the Iranians:
The statement says the tanker was carrying 1 million liters of smuggled oil that it had picked up from small Iranian ships and was sailing towards foreign ships with it. The ship was seized south of Lark Island in the Strait of Hormuz, the IRGC statement quoted by Fars says.
“During the patrolling mission in the Persian Gulf aiming at the discovery and confrontation with organized smuggling on Sunday, 14th of July2019, the IRGC’s first region navy patrol made the seizure of a foreign vessel in surprise after it made sure the vessel was carrying one million liters smuggled fuel. The seizure was coordinated with the judiciary and happened in the south of Lark Island.
“This ship which has the capacity of carrying 2 million liter of oil, had 12 crew members on board and was sailing towards foreign ships farther away to take the smuggled oil it had got from Iranian dhows. But the mission was failed with IRGC fighters’ smart move,” the IRGC statement added.
A day earlier, however, Iran’s Foreign Ministry had claimed that the IRGC had come to the ship’s rescue after a distress call and a “glitch”:
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has said that security forces recently came to the aid of a foreign oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, hours after reports that Iran might have seized a tanker from the United Arab Emirates in the area.
Abbas Mousavi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Iranian forces had rushed to the aid of an unidentified tanker that had sent a distress call after a “technical glitch,” according to reports Tuesday night from the semiofficial Iranian news agency Press TV. He said that tugboats had towed it toward Iranian waters for repairs.
It’s the same ship, Al Jazeera reports this morning, so we’re not dealing with two separate incidents. The Iranians tell AJ that the operation started as a rescue and then the IRGC realized the ship was smuggling after being towed back to Larak Island. So much for the “smart move,” explanation, but that doesn’t explain much of anything at the moment. There are more basic questions on the table, such as: which ship did the Iranians seize, and better yet, to whom does it belong?
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that a ship from the United Arab Emirates went missing in that same area a few days ago. Even at that point, the AP wondered whether the Iranians had grabbed it:
A small oil tanker from the United Arab Emirates traveling through the Strait of Hormuz entered Iranian waters and turned off its tracker three days ago, leading the U.S. to suspect Iran seized the vessel amid heightened tensions in the region.
Iranian state media quoted its Foreign Ministry spokesman early Wednesday as saying the Islamic Republic had aided a foreign oil tanker with a malfunction, but the report didn’t explain further. Oil tankers previously have been targeted in the wider region amid tensions between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The Panamanian-flagged Riah turned off its transponder late Saturday night but an Emirati official said it sent no distress call. The concern over its status comes as Iran continues its own high-pressure campaign over its nuclear program after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord over a year ago.
At least for now, though, the UAE says it’s not their ship:
But an Emirati official told NBC News on Tuesday that the “tanker in question is neither UAE owned nor operated, does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call.”
The motive for seizing a ship is patently obvious. It’s retaliation for the British seizure of a ship near Gibraltar carrying Iranian oil to Syria, which the UK seized for violations of EU sanctions on Bashar al-Assad. They also arrested several members of the crew, which the Iranians claimed to have done in this instance as well. It’s a tit-for-tat response, but it’s tough to know exactly who it’s aimed at until the identity of the ship is made clear. And let’s not forget that the seizure by the UK followed attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf by Iran.
The Iranians are playing with fire with another attack on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. That will significantly impact the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, but it will cripple Iran if those countries and the US act to shut down Iranian shipping. They have nowhere else to go, and their economic situation is already reaching a desperate crisis. Iran’s playing an economic game of chicken with a Yugo while its opponents drive a Mack truck.