DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- A small oil tanker from the United Arab Emirates traveling through the Strait of Hormuz entered Iranian waters and turned off its tracker, leading the U.S. to suspect that Iran seized the vessel, an American defense official said Tuesday.
Iran offered no immediate comment on what happened to the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Riah late Saturday, though an Emirati official acknowledged that the vessel sent out no distress call. Oil tankers previously have been targeted in the wider region amid tensions between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The concern about the Riah comes as Iran continues a pressure campaign over its nuclear program after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord over a year ago.
Recently, Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.
However, those tensions also have led the U.S. to send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Middle East. Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran's shoot-down of a U.S. military surveillance drone have added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.
The Riah, a 190-foot oil tanker, typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE's west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE's east coast. However, something happened to the vessel late Saturday, according to tracking data.
Capt. Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv said Tuesday that the tanker hadn't switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE.
"That is a red flag," Raja said.
A U.S. defense official later said the Riah was in Iranian territorial waters near Qeshm Island, which has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.
"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 official spoke on condition of anonymity as the matter did not directly involve U.S. interests.
An Emirati official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing security matter, said the vessel "did not emit a distress call."
"We are monitoring the situation with our international partners," the official said.
The ship's registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, said it had sold the ship to a company called Mouj Al-Bahar. A man who answered a telephone number registered to the firm said it didn't own any ships. The Emirati official said the ship was "neither UAE owned nor operated" and carried no Emirati personnel, without elaborating.
Separately Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country will retaliate over the seizure of a supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian light crude oil. The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar over suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. In a televised speech, Khamenei called the operation "piracy."
"God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response," he said. He did not elaborate.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Saturday that Britain will facilitate the release of the ship if Iran can provide guarantees the vessel will not breach European sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.
Iran previously has threatened to stop oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all crude oil passes, if it cannot sell its own oil abroad.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to suggest in a television interview that the Islamic Republic's ballistic missile program could be up for negotiations with the U.S., marking a possible opening for talks. Zarif suggested an initially high price for such negotiations -- the halt of American arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two key U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.
Iran's ballistic missile program remains under the control of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Khamenei.
Zarif brought up the ballistic missile suggestion during an interview with NBC News that aired Monday night while he is in New York for meetings at the United Nations. He mentioned the UAE spending $22 billion and Saudi Arabia spending $67 billion on weapons last year, many of them American-made, while Iran spent $16 billion in comparison.
Information for this article was contributed by Nasser Karimi of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/17/2019
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