US officials now say they are unsure whether an oil tanker that disappeared in the Gulf was seized or rescued by Iran.
The MT Riah, which sailed from the UAE, vanished when its transponder was switched off in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday night.
Adding to the mystery, the UAE has refuted claims that the oil tanker belongs to them and said there were no Emirati crew on board.
Iran’s foreign ministry told state media in the Islamic Republic that its forces had aided a foreign oil tanker which developed a malfunction.
The MT Riah was last tracked in the Strait of Hormuz around 11pm Saturday before it suddenly slowed down, turned to face Iran, then stopped transmitting its location
Despite a US defence official earlier saying it was ‘suspicious,’ another has stated today that it was not clear if the tanker was seized from international waters or towed to safety.
Earlier today a US defence official said: ‘We certainly have suspicions that it was taken … Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility. But the longer there is a period of no contact … it’s going to be a concern.’
The UAE refuted reports the ship was theirs, stating: ‘The tanker in question is neither owned nor operated by the UAE.
‘It does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call. We are monitoring the situation with our international partners.’
The tanker’s registered manager is Prime Tankers in the UAE. That company said it had sold the tanker to another UAE-based company, Mouj al-Bahar.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country will retaliate over the Royal Marines seizing an Iranian supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil off Gibraltar
An employee at Mouj al-Bahar told Reuters that the firm did not own it but had been managing the vessel up to two months ago, and that it was now under the management of a company called KRB Petrochem.
Similar vessels have previously been targeted in the wider region amid tensions between the US and Iran over its unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.
The concern over MT Riah’s status comes as Iran continues its own high-pressure campaign over its nuclear programme after US 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 the 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 Middle East.
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 190ft Riah 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.
Capt Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv said the tanker had not switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE, and described this development as ‘a red flag’.
There are fears the vessel has been seized by Iran because it deviated outside shipping lanes (pictured in pink) and then headed towards Iran’s Qeshm Island before disappearing
Iran has been threatening to disrupt shipping through the Strait of Hormuz – through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes each day – ever since the US walked away from a nuclear deal signed with world powers in 2015
Iran’s IRNA news agency quoted foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying Iran had helped an unnamed tanker by towing it to an Iranian port.
The report did not identify the ship, nor explain the malfunction and the lack of a distress call or any crew contact with home.
Separately, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country will retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian supertanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil.
Iran tried and failed to stop UK tanker British Heritage (file image) sailing through the Strait last week after the Royal Navy intervened
A UK soldier on board the Grace 1 after it was arrested off Gibraltar. The UK decided to stop the tanker as it was thought to be heading to Iran, in breach of EU sanctions
The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar over suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions, an operation Khamenei called ‘piracy’ in a televised speech.
‘God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response,’ he said.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain will facilitate the release of the ship if Iran can guarantee the vessel will not breach European sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.