17 july 2019
American officials have raised concerns that Iran may have seized the 1,900 dwt product tanker Riah. The AIS signal for the Riah (IMO 8816455) was last detected by commercial tracking services on Saturday. At the time of the last transmission, she was under way in the Strait of Hormuz, making two knots and headed for the Iranian-controlled island of Qeshm.
“Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility,” a U.S. official said, speaking to AP. “But the longer there is a period of no contact, it’s going to be a concern.”
Merchant vessels may intentionally turn off AIS transmissions for a variety of reasons, like hiding their position from potential aggressors (like pirates off Somalia or Nigeria) or masking their own illicit activity, like smuggling or sanctions-busting. Tankers with orders to lift sanctioned Iranian petroleum often disable AIS prior to arrival, then turn it on again once they are well away from Iran’s shores. However, the Riah has not disabled her AIS previously in at least the past three months, ship data firm Refinitiv told Fox.
While the Riah’s Equasis record shows that she is owned and operated in the UAE, an Emirati official told Gulf Today in a statement that this is not the case. “The tanker in question is neither UAE owned nor operated. It does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call,” he said. “We are monitoring the situation with our international partners.”
On Tuesday, Iran appeared to acknowledge that its forces were in contact with the Riah. In a statement carried by state news agency ISNA, Iranian government spokesman Abbas Mousavi said that Iran’s navy had provided help to an unnamed tanker after the vessel suffered a mechanical casualty. “An international oil tanker was in trouble due to a technical fault in the Persian Gulf,” Mousavi said. “After receiving a request for assistance, Iranian forces approached it and used a tugboat to pull it towards Iranian waters for the necessary repairs to be carried out.”
Tensions between Iran and the United States are high: last year, the U.S. withdrew unilaterally from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal that saw Iran suspend its nuclear weapons program, and reimposed strict sanctions on most of Iran’s economy. Iranian oil exports have been especially hard-hit, directly undercutting Tehran’s revenue base.
In response, Iran recently decided to exceed the JCPOA’s cap on its low-enriched uranium stockpile, and it is threatening to breach the treaty’s ban on 20 percent enriched uranium soon if it does not receive the expected economic benefits of the nuclear deal. The United States insists that Iran should halt enrichment.
In May and June, as the diplomatic dispute gained in intensity, six tankers were attacked with explosive charges off the UAE. The U.S. has asserted that Iranian operatives were responsible, but Iran denies the allegation. The UAE has so far carefully avoided blaming any single party, and in particular, it says that it does not have conclusive evidence pointing to Iran.