Dubai, United Arab Emirates: The US is investigating the disappearance of a small Emirati oil tanker that entered Iranian waters and stopped transmitting its location, in an incident that could intensify frictions in the Gulf.
Tracking data shows the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker, Riah, travelling through the Strait of Hormuz drifted off into Iranian waters and stopped transmitting its location over two days ago, raising concerns about its status.
The last-known location of the oil tanker Riah. Credit:Marine Traffic
Washington is aware of the developing situation, according to a US official who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
It isn't clear what happened to the vessel late on Saturday night. However, its last position showed it pointing toward Iran. Oil tankers have previously been targeted as the Persian Gulf region took centre stage in a crisis over Iran's unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.
The concern about the Riah comes as Iran continues its own high-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 of its 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 seen the US send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Mideast. Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone has added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.
The Riah, a 58-metre 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 after 11pm on Saturday, according to tracking data.
Captain Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv told The Associated Press on 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.
Iranian officials have not said anything publicly about the ship, nor have officials in the UAE. The US Navy's 5th Fleet, which oversees Mideast waters, declined to immediately comment.
The ship's registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, told the AP it had sold the ship to another company called Mouj Al-Bahar. A man who answered a telephone number registered to the firm told the AP it didn't own any ships.
Separately, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday his country will retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil. The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar.
Khamenei called the seizure of the ship "piracy" in a televised speech on Tuesday.
"God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response," he said.
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.
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