Iran Claims it Seized Small Tanker for Fuel-Smuggling

An IRGC speedboat circles the Riah (video still via PressTV)

Published Jul 18, 2019 7:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

Iran's government has confirmed Western suspicions that it has seized a small product tanker, the Riah, in the Strait of Hormuz. 

State-aligned news outlet Fars said Thursday that the naval forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intercepted the Riah Sunday after the tanker made a distress call near Larak Island. After boarding, the IRGC determined that she was engaged in fuel smuggling, Fars asserted; the vessel had allegedly taken on a cargo of petroleum products from Iranian dhows. 12 people were reportedly detained in connection with the boarding. 

Iran originally claimed that its forces had come to the aid of the Riah after she reported technical issues, then provided her with a tow to a port of refuge. 

The Riah's Equasis record indicates that she is UAE-owned and operated, though the Emirati government denies that she has any connection to the Emirates. The UAE is part of a Gulf state alliance opposing Iran's influence, and the vessel's disappearance raised concerns among U.S. officials that the Riah may have been seized by Iran as a political act. Six tankers were attacked off the Emirati port of Fujairah in May and June - acts that the White House attributes to Tehran and the IRGC. 

If the interdiction of the Riah was a law enforcement action, as Iran claims, it would appear to represent a routine part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' border patrol duties. The IRGC is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, but it is also a large component of Iran's national military, and it is tasked with border enforcement on Iran's northwestern and southern boundaries.

Fuel-smuggling is a rampant problem in Iran. Thanks to heavy government subsidies, gasoline is extraordinarily cheap on the Iranian domestic market - less than one dollar per gallon - creating a profitable opportunity for illegal smuggling networks. Most fuel smuggling occurs via tanker trucks and small vehicles crossing Iran's land borders, and the destination markets are primarily neighboring countries in Central Asia. However, large-scale busts at sea have occurred previously: In April, prior to the tanker attacks and the spike in regional tensions, IRGC forces seized a small vessel in the Strait of Hormuz and detained 21 people on allegations of fuel smuggling.  

“We do this every day. These are people who smuggle our oil,” Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in New York on Thursday. 

USS Boxer shoots down Iranian drone

In a statement Thursday, President Donald Trump said that the amphib USS Boxer had taken down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after the aircraft came too close for safety. Officials told U.S. media that Marines embarked aboard the Boxer had used a vehicle-mounted Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS), an anti-drone jamming device, to disrupt the drone's radio connection to its shore-based pilot. 

"The Boxer took defensive action against an Iranian drone which had closed into a very very near distance, approximately 1000 yards, ignoring multiple calls to stand down, and was threatening the safety of the ship and the ship's crew. The drone was immediately destroyed," Trump said.