United States of America have declared their suspect that Iran seized a small oil tanker from the United Arab Emirates traveling through the Strait of Hormuz entered Iranian waters and turned off its tracker two days ago, amid heightened tensions in the region, an American defense official said on Tuesday.
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.
Iran offered no immediate comment on what happened to the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Riah late Saturday night, though an Emirati official acknowledged the vessel sent out no distress call.
The concern about the Riah 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.
Recently, Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.
However, those tensions also have seen the U.S. send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Mideast.
Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone has added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.
The Riah, a 58-meter (190-foot) oil tanker, typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. However, something happened to the vessel after 11 p.m. on Saturday, according to tracking data.
Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the tanker hadn’t switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE.
“That is a red flag,” Raja said.
A U.S. defense official later told the AP that the Riah was in Iranian territorial waters near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.
“We certainly have suspicions that it was taken,” the official said. “Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility. But the longer there is a period of no contact … it’s going to be a concern.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as the matter did not directly involve U.S. interests.
An Emirati official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing security matter, said the vessel “did not emit a distress call.”
“We are monitoring the situation with our international partners,” the official said.
The ship’s registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, told the AP it had sold the ship to another company called Mouj Al-Bahar. A man who answered a telephone number registered to the firm told the AP it didn’t own any ships. The Emirati official said the ship was “neither UAE owned nor operated” and carried no Emirati personnel, without elaborating.
Separately Tuesday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country will retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil.
The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar over suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions, an operation Khamenei called “piracy” in a televised speech
“God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response,” he said. He did not elaborate.