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Iran’s IRGC seizes foreign tanker accused of smuggling fuel in Persian Gulf

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has seized an oil tanker carrying fuel that the Islamic Republic claims was being smuggled through the Persian Gulf.

The IRGC said its patrol boats intercepted the tanker carrying carrying a million liters of smuggled fuel south of Larak island over the weekend, Tasnim news agency reported on Thursday, July 18.

The tanker had a crew of 12 and was seized on July 14, the IRGC said.

“After receiving the smuggled fuel from some Iranian small vessels, the foreign ship, which has the capacity of carrying two million liters of fuel, was to deliver its cargo to other foreign vessels far from the Iranian island,” the IRGC statement said.

The statement did not say under which flag the tanker was operating or name its intended destination.

On Tuesday, a foreign ministry spokesperson said Iranian forces were assisting “foreign tanker that had encountered a technical problem” in the Gulf after the Panamanian-flagged tanker Riah had stopped sending signals in Iranian waters.

The Riah’s last reported position was near Qeshm, a larger island that lies just to the west of Larak in the Strait of Hormuz.

Riah, which is commonly used to refuel other vessels, sent its last signal after entering Iranian waters on July 14, the independent online monitor TankerTrackers has said.

TankerTrackers said on Thursday that Larak is used as a waiting area for empty tankers waiting to depart to other ports in Iran to pick up crude oil or gas condensates.

A video released by the IRGC later on Thursday appears to confirm the seizure of the Riah, but it is unclear why the foreign ministry initially said the ship was being assisted.

The Strait of Hormuz, which runs between the Persian Gulf and and Gulf of Oman, is a key shipping route for international commerce.

Iran had vowed to retaliate after one of its oil tankers was seized by officials off the coast of Gibraltar, sparking a row with the United Kingdom.

The U.K. said last week that three boats believed to be IRGC vessels tried to stop the merchant tanker British Heritage as it was entering the Strait of Hormuz from the Gulf.

The Royal Navy has since dispatched HMS Duncan to join HMS Montrose in the Gulf, and said on Wednesday that it would send a second Type 23 frigate, the HMS Kent, to the region later this year.

Tensions between Tehran and the West have deepened since last year when President Donald Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal that was reached between China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. Iran has since accused the Europeans of failing to live up to their end of the deal by standing up to the U.S., and has begun enriching uranium at a level higher than allowed under the agreement – so far high enough to support nuclear power plants, but still far too low to be viable in a nuclear weapon.

On June 20, the IRGC shot down a U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone which it said violated Iranian airspace over the Kuh-e Mubarak region in Iran’s southern Homozgan province. The U.S. maintains the drone was operating in international airspace.

A week earlier, the Trump administration blamed the IRGC for attacks on Japanese and Norwegian fuel tankers in the Gulf of Oman, allegations that Iranian officials have denied. The Pentagon said Iran fired a surface-to-air-missile at an American drone the same day.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also blamed Iran for a Houthi missile attack on a Saudi Arabian airport on June 12. Yemen’s Houthis have been engaged in a war with the Saudi-led coalition since 2015, and Iran denies providing material support to the rebels.

Washington has previously accused Iran of being behind May 12 attacks on four tankers anchored off the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz.

The U.S. has responded to the increased tensions by moving more assets to the Persian Gulf, while insisting it does not want a war with Iran. On June 17, in one of his last acts as Acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan authorized the deployment of around 1,000 additional U.S. troops to the region.

This story was updated throughout the day on July 18, 2019 with additional information.

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