Iran says it aided foreign oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz
By ERIN CUNNINGHAM | The Washington Post | Published: July 16, 2019
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran says it came to the assistance of a foreign oil tanker that broke down in the Strait of Hormuz as international concern is mounting over the fate of an Emirati-linked ship that went missing in Iranian waters three days ago.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said that the tanker was approached by Iranian forces after sending out a distress call and was towed into Iranian waters for repairs.
"A foreign oil tanker encountered a problem in the Persian Gulf due to technical failure and Iranian forces, in accordance with international regulations, rushed to help it after receiving a distress call," Mousavi was quoted by Iranian media on Wednesday as saying.
Iran then "pulled it toward Iranian waters with a tugboat in order to carry out the necessary repairs," Mousavi said, adding that more information on the incident would be announced later.
His remarks followed reports that the Panama-flagged Riah, an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates, disappeared in Iranian waters late Saturday. Shipping tracking data showed that it was on its way to Sharjah in the UAE before it stopped transmitting its position off the coast of Iran's Qeshm Island in the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important oil choke point.
Both Emirati and U.S. officials said that the Riah, a small oil-products tanker, did not send a distress call.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Tuesday that the U.S. military was aware of the disappearance and had no additional information to share at this time.
There were conflicting reports about the ownership of the Riah, but according to Equasis, a shipping industry database, it is operated by Prime Tankers in Dubai.
In Washington, Mark Esper, President Donald Trump's nominee to become his new defense secretary, said at a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that the U.S. military and allied forces have established Operation Sentinel to patrol the Persian Gulf region's waters in response to recent acts by Iranian forces.
Since May, at least six vessels have been attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic body of water connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that carries a considerable amount of oil traffic, in incidents that the United States has blamed on Iran. Britain said last week that Iranian naval forces attempted to block a British oil tanker traversing the strait but were repelled by a navy frigate escorting the ship.
Esper said that if the British warship had not intervened, it probably would resulted in the Iranians assaulting the oil tanker or forcing it into Iranian waters and creating an international incident.
"Just a simple thing of appearing on the scene and the warship putting itself in between the IRGC boats and a merchant vessel was enough to deter something that could have escalated out of control," he said, referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran has denied involvement in the incidents but also threatened to retaliate against British shipping interests after an Iranian oil tanker was seized off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month.
The vessel, the Grace 1, was carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil and was suspected of seeking to travel to the Syrian port of Baniyas in violation of European Union sanctions, authorities in Gibraltar said. Gibraltar is a British territory.
"The vicious British government committed piracy and attacked our ship," Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech Tuesday. Iran "will not leave such acts without a response," he warned.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Saturday that Britain would help facilitate the Grace 1's release if Iran could provide guarantees that the ship's cargo would not go to Syria. Iran has said that it is not subject to E.U. sanctions.