Iran says it towed foreign tanker with technical failure

Statement comes amid questions over whereabouts of Panamanian-flagged oil tanker travelling in the Strait of Hormuz.

    The Strait of Hormuz is a key shipping route linking Middle East oil producers to markets around the world [File: Atta Kane/ AFP]
    The Strait of Hormuz is a key shipping route linking Middle East oil producers to markets around the world [File: Atta Kane/ AFP]
    Correction July 18, 2019: An earlier version of this story misquoted the TankerTrackers saying the Riah was owned by UAE's Prime Tankers. This is incorrect. The group said the ship was operating under the company's care.

    Iran's foreign ministry has said Iranian forces have assisted a disabled foreign oil tanker in the Gulf, amid questions over the whereabouts of a Panamanian-flagged ship travelling through the Strait of Hormuz.

    Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran's navy "offered help to a foreign tanker with technical failure" in its territorial waters, the official IRNA news agency reported on Wednesday.

    "Based on international regulations, after receiving their request for help, Iranian forces went to the site and the foreign tanker was towed by an emergency towing vessel toward Iranian waters for repairing process," Mousavi was quoted as saying.

    He did not name the tanker and did not elaborate further.

    TankerTrackers reported on Tuesday that the Panamanian-flagged Riah, used "for fuelling other vessels", had crossed into Iranian waters on July 14 "for the first time as she slowed down".

    According to the online oil-shipment tracking service, at that point the tanker's automatic identification system stopped sending signals. Quoting the Equasis shipping database, TankerTrackers said the vessel was owned by Riah Shipping & Trade, and operating under the care of Prime Tankers LLC of the United Arab Emirates.  

    The Riah's last known position was off Qeshm Island in the Strait of Hormuz.

    On Tuesday, a UAE official, who requested anonymity, said the "tanker in question is neither UAE-owned nor operated".

    "[It] does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call," the official told the AFP news agency. "We are monitoring the situation with our international partners."

    Ranjith Raja, of the data firm Refinitiv, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the tanker had not switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE. "That is a red flag," Raja said.

    A US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the AP that Iranian forces may have seized the 58-metre ship.

    "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 questions over Riah's status come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over Tehran's nuclear programme and a standoff between Iran and the United Kingdom over the British Royal Marines' seizure of an Iranian oil tanker earlier in July.

    The vessel was held on the suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.

    Tehran has called on the UK to release the vessel immediately, with Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei saying his country will retaliate over the seizure of the supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil.

    Calling the incident an act of "piracy" in a televised speech on Tuesday, Khamenei said: "God willing, the Islamic republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response." He did not elaborate.

    The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said on Saturday the UK would facilitate the release of the ship if Iran could guarantee the vessel would not breach EU sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.

    Separately, the US has also blamed Iran for a spate of suspected attacks in May and June on commercial vessels near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital sea lane through which more than 20 percent of all crude oil passes. Tehran denies the allegations.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies