TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized a ship in the Persian Gulf suspected of carrying smuggled fuel, state media reported Sunday, marking Iran’s third seizure of a commercial vessel in recent weeks and the latest show of strength by the paramilitary force amid a spike in regional tensions.
State TV and the semi-official Fars news agency reported that seven crew members were detained when the ship was seized late Wednesday carrying 700,000 liters of “smuggled fuel” from Iran. The local reports did not provide further details on the vessel or the nationality of the crew.
The news agency reported that the ship was seized near Farsi Island, where an Iranian Guard Navy base is located. The island sits in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran, north of the Strait of Hormuz.
“This foreign vessel had received the fuel from other ships and was transferring it to Persian Gulf Arab states,” Fars quoted Gen. Ramazan Zirahi, a Guard commander, as saying.
This would mark the third vessel seized by the Guard in the past two weeks, and the second accused of smuggling fuel.
The US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it did not have information to confirm the reports. Maritime tracking experts also said they did not have any immediate information about the incident or the vessel.
Illegal fuel smuggling out of Iran is a concern of authorities there. Iranian media reported last month that some 8 million liters of government-subsidized Iranian fuel are smuggled daily through Iran’s borders to other countries where prices are much higher.
Tensions have soared around the Strait of Hormuz, a critical oil shipping waterway that lies between Iran and Oman. The US has boosted its military presence in the region and six oil tankers have been targeted in the Gulf of Oman in unclaimed acts of sabotage that the US blames on Iran. Iran has denied any involvement in those attacks.
On July 18, the paramilitary force seized a United Arab Emirates-based oil tanker, the Panamanian-flagged MT Riah, for allegedly smuggling some 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel from Iranian smugglers to foreign customers.
The following week, the Guard’s naval forces seized a British-flagged vessel in the Gulf in what some Iranian officials suggested was retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in a British Royal Navy operation off Gibraltar. The UK says the Iranian oil tanker was suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria. Iran denies the ship was bound for Syria but has not disclosed its destination.
The tensions are rooted in US President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the US from Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord with world powers and impose sweeping sanctions on the country. Iran recently began openly breaching limits set by the nuclear agreement, saying it cannot abide by the deal unless European signatories provide some kind of economic relief.