President Donald Trump talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington, July 16. Doug Mills/The New York Times

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has detained a foreign oil tanker it said had been smuggling fuel, Iranian media reported Thursday, days after a United Arab Emirates vessel with the same name disappeared in the Persian Gulf.

The disclosure raised tensions in the running conflict that has pitted Iran against some of its regional neighbors and the United States.

Several state news organizations in Iran reported the seizure of the tanker, based on a statement from the Revolutionary Guard, which claimed that the ship had been carrying 1 million liters of contraband fuel. Iranian state news agency Al Alam reported that the Revolutionary Guard detained the ship Sunday.

The Revolutionary Guard statement said the incident took place to the south of Iran’s Larak Island, in the northern part of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow Persian Gulf waterway that is a vital conduit for maritime petroleum traffic.

The tanker and its nationality were not identified. But an account published by PressTV, an official English-language Iranian website, included a video clip it said had been provided by the Revolutionary Guard showing the vessel’s name on its stern as the Riah. That is the name of the Emirati ship, incommunicado since late Saturday while it had been traveling in the Persian Gulf.

In its statement, the Revolutionary Guard denied Western news accounts that its forces had inexplicably seized a tanker, instead portraying the impoundment as an anti-smuggling operation.

Reacting to the disclosure, the State Department condemned what it called the Revolutionary Guard’s “continued harassment of vessels and interference with safe passage in and around the Strait of Hormuz” and demanded the immediate release of the ship and crew.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Iranian forces over the weekend had come to the aid of a ship in distress and towed it to shore for repairs. The ministry did not identify the ship, which raised the possibility it might not be the missing Emirati tanker.

There had been widespread speculation that the Riah was taken by Iran. The country has long been at odds with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both U.S. allies that support opposing sides in the civil war in Yemen.

Last year, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program, reimposing economic sanctions that had been suspended under the deal. He imposed new sanctions this year.

Iranian officials have threatened retaliation, including possible disruption of shipments from the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, which carries about 20% of the world’s oil.

U.S. officials have blamed Iran for apparent attacks on tankers in May and June, which followed the new sanctions that aimed to cut off Iran’s ability to sell oil, a pillar of its economy.

After those penalties were imposed, Iran warned that it would step back from compliance with the deal, and in the past month it has exceeded the agreement’s limits on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on how highly it could enrich the metal.

Last month, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone that it said had violated its airspace; U.S. officials said the aircraft was over international waters. In response, Trump ordered, then called off, a military strike against Iran.

Two weeks ago, British forces seized an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, charging that it was violating European Union sanctions against Syria. Iranian officials called for the seizure of a British ship as retribution, and the British Navy reported last week that one of its ships had chased away Iranian boats that were trying to impede a British tanker.

The U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, has intensified patrols in the Persian Gulf area because of the tensions with Iran, including the deployment of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. On Thursday, the 5th Fleet reported a search was underway for a sailor on the Abraham Lincoln who had gone missing in what it described as a “man overboard incident” while the carrier was in the Arabian Sea.

New York Times

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