A view of the Strait of Hormuz 02121
A view of the Strait of Hormuz. (File photo) Image Credit: File

Dubai: Update:

July 17, 2019, 6.52am

Iran says assisting ailing 'foreign tanker'

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said Tuesday that the Islamic republic was assisting a "foreign tanker that had encountered a technical problem" in the Gulf after receiving a distress call.

"According to international regulations... Iranian forces approached it and using a tugboat brought it into Iranian waters for necessary repairs," Abbas Mousavi said according to an official government Twitter account.

The spokesman added that further details would be released later.

Earlier, TankerTrackers reported that the Panamanian-flagged tanker Riah, used in the strategic Strait of Hormuz "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.

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

July 16, 2019, 22.54

A small oil tanker that has apparently gone missing in the Arabian Gulf isn't owned or operated by the United Arab Emirates and hasn't sent out a distress call, Bloomberg news service quoted a UAE official as saying.

The Panamanian-flagged Riah, which entered Iranian waters and stopped transmitting its location, also "does not carry Emirati personnel," said Salem Al Zaabi, director of the International Security Cooperation Department at the UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The UAE is monitoring the situation with international partners, he added.

WAM has also quoted the UAE official and said the oil tanker MT Riah is not owned by the UAE.

"The tanker in question is neither owned nor operated by the UAE," he said in a statement. 

"It does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call. We are monitoring the situation with our international partners," he concluded.

The vessel was passing through the Strait of Hormuz, a shipping chokepoint at the mouth of the Gulf, before it went silent more than two days ago in unexplained circumstances, according to the Associated Press. The news agency said the US "has suspicions" that Iran took control of the tanker, citing an unidentified defense official.

The disappearance was first reported by CNN's Barbara Starr, who said US intelligence increasingly believed the tanker had been forced into Iranian waters by the Revolutionary Guard but that some Gulf sources suggested the ship simply broke down and was towed by Iran.

This image provided by Nasa shows the Strait of Hormuz taken from the International Space Station in September 30, 2003. Image Credit: AP/Nasa

30-year old vessel

If the Riah has been seized, it would seem an unusual target for Iran. The vessel is 30 years old and tiny. Its capacity is 2,000 dead weight tons, according to the MarineTraffic website. That is only a fraction of the nearly 160,000-ton capacity of the British Heritage, the UK oil tanker harassed by Iranian ships last week while exiting the Arabian Gulf.

Iran has been blamed for attacks on merchant shipping in recent months and has made threats in the past few weeks against the UK after British Royal Marines helped authorities in Gibraltar to seize a supertanker as it carried Iranian crude in the Mediterranean Sea seemingly bound for Syria.

In May and June, six tankers were attacked just outside the Gulf. A British Navy frigate intervened this month to stop Iranian boats from blocking the BP Plc-operated British Heritage as it was exiting the waters. Iranian officials haven't said anything publicly about the Riah. The US Navy's 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, declined to immediately comment.

UK to send third warship to Gulf


LONDON: Britain will send a third Royal Navy warship to the Gulf, the defence ministry announced Tuesday, while insisting that it did not ‘reflect an escalation’ of tensions with Iran in the region.

Britain has already sent the HMS Duncan, an air defence destroyer, to cover for frigate HMS Montrose while it undergoes maintenance in nearby Bahrain, and will also send frigate HMS Kent "later this year".

Reports said it would head to the Gulf in mid-September.

HMS Montrose last week warned off three Iranian gunboats that UK officials said were trying to "impede" the progress of a British supertanker through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf.

HMS Montrose
Royal Navy Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose performs a series of tight turns during exercise Marstrike 05 off the coast of Oman March 22, 2005. Picture taken March 22, 2005. Image Credit: Reuters

The defence ministry said the HMS Kent would be "taking over" from HMS Duncan, but added that an "occasional overlap of ships when one deployment begins and another ends... is not uncommon," suggesting that all three could be in the region at some point.

The ministry said the deployments were "long-planned" to ensure "an unbroken presence" in the crucial waterway and "do not reflect an escalation in the UK posture in the region".

Iranian officials have denied last Wednesday's incident in the Strait of Hormuz ever happened.

The British government has in any case raised the alert level for ships travelling through Iranian waters to three on a three-point scale, indicating a ‘critical’ threat.

HMS Duncan is an air defence destroyer that carries a set of heavy Harpoon anti-ship missiles and has a company and crew in excess of 280.

Tensions have been escalating in the region for weeks, with US President Donald Trump last month calling off at the last minute an air strike on Iran over its downing of a US spy drone.

The Strait of Hormuz episode occurred a week after UK Royal Marines helped the Gibraltar authorities detain an Iranian tanker that US officials believe was trying to deliver oil to Syria in violation of separate sets of EU and US sanctions.

Iran has bristled at the arrest and issued a series of increasingly ominous warnings to both the United States and Britain about its right to take unspecified actions in reprisal.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sought to ease tensions on Monday by saying the tanker would be released if Tehran guaranteed it was not heading to Syria.