- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2019

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps last week seized an Iraqi ship in the Persian Gulf that was suspected of transporting “smuggled fuel” to several countries in the region, the official state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported Sunday.

The IRGC said in a statement that the seizure occurred “during the operation of monitoring and control of the navigation of vessels in the Persian Gulf in order to find and combat organized smuggling” and was coordinated with and authorized by judicial authorities.

The guard corps on Wednesday confiscated 185,000 gallons of Iranian fuel found on the vessel.

The semi-official Fars News Agency said seven foreign nationals who were aboard the ship were taken into custody.

The ship reportedly was stopped near Farsi Island, which houses a guard corps naval base in the northern part of the Persian Gulf.

If confirmed, the latest move marks Iran’s third ship seizure in as many weeks. A British tanker traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping channel, was intercepted last month. A week earlier, the IRGC tried to impede the passage of another British ship traveling in the same area.

Neither the Pentagon nor the White House immediately confirmed or issued a response to the reports.

IRGC commander Gen. Ramazan Zirahi told Fars that the ship was in Iranian waters rather than international territory and was moving diesel.

He said the “foreign vessel had received fuel from other ships and was transferring it,” The Associated Press reported.

Fars on Sunday tweeted footage that showed what appeared to be several compartments of oil aboard the ship. The news outlet said the images were from the inside of a foreign vessel seized by the IRGC.

The ship was taken to Bushehr Port in southwestern Iran, and the cargo was transported to the National Oil Distribution Co. in the Bushehr province, IRNA reported.

After the last seizure, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organization, released video footage of another foreign oil tanker that was intercepted, which Tehran said was smuggling fuel out of the country.

The video showed the ship to be a United Arab Emirates vessel that disappeared in Iranian waters in July.

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. and its allies were heightened last month when the U.S. military said it shot down a “threatening” Iranian drone over international waters in the area.

In June, Iran allegedly carried out limpet mine attacks on two oil tankers traveling through the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran recently said it plans to demand that all ships in the region pay a toll, which suggests that Tehran has no intention of scaling back its disruptions.

The country has persistently tried to impede the flow of oil through the Middle East as a direct response to the Trump administration’s global embargo on all exports of Iranian oil.

The embargo is a key piece of a broader set of economic sanctions designed to drive Iran back to the negotiating table. The Trump administration is pressuring Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons program and end all financial support for terrorism.

Several U.S. allies have hesitated to fully join the economic pressure campaign. Britain has tried to keep in place the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which offered some economic relief in exchange for a scaled-back nuclear program.

In the aftermath of the IRGC’s seizure of its ship, Britain suggested it may be time to take a harder line.

British officials have said they intend to beef up the nation’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf region, and the Pentagon said it is launching a multinational effort to increase “surveillance and security.”

Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last month signaled for the first time that he would be open to talks with the U.S. over Tehran’s disputed ballistic missile programs, which could lead the Trump administration to ease sanctions.

However, the opportunity hit a standstill when the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Mr. Zarif weeks later after accusing him of spreading propaganda and defending the persecution of his own people.

Administration officials said Mr. Zarif has been “indulged” for too long as a reasonable actor on the global stage and that the State Department will decide on a case-by-case basis whether he is allowed to travel to the U.S. — chiefly to the United Nations in New York.

The sanctions stem from President Trump’s executive order issued in June that allows sanctions on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those who act on his behalf.

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