U.S. probing fate of U.A.E. oil tanker that entered Iran waters

The U.S. 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.

Washington is aware of the developing situation with the vessel, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The Riah 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, according to the Associated Press. It’s not immediately clear what happened to the Panamanian-flagged ship.

The disappearance was first reported by CNN’s Barbara Starr, who said U.S. 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.

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 U.K. oil tanker harassed by Iranian ships last week while exiting the Persian Gulf.

While Iran has been blamed for attacks on merchant shipping in recent months, it has denied responsibility. The main threats it has made in the past few weeks have been against the U.K. after British Royal Marines helped Gibraltar to seize a supertanker as it carried Iranian crude in the Mediterranean Sea.

The incident is the latest involving commercial ships sailing to and from the Gulf, through which about a third of all seaborne petroleum passes. In May and June, six tankers were attacked just outside the Gulf.

A British Navy frigate intervened this month to stop Iran from blocking the BP Plc-operated British Heritage as it was exiting Gulf.

Iranian officials haven’t said anything publicly about the Riah, nor have officials in the U.A.E. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, declined to immediately comment.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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