DUBAI — Iran says it came to the assistance of a foreign oil tanker that broke down in the Strait of Hormuz, as international concern mounted over the fate of an Emirati-linked ship that went missing in Iranian waters four days ago.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said the tanker was approached by Iranian forces after sending a distress call and was towed into Iranian waters for repairs.
“A foreign oil tanker encountered a problem in the Persian Gulf due to technical failure, and Iranian forces, in accordance with international regulations, rushed to help it after receiving a distress call,” Mousavi said Wednesday, according to Iranian media.
Iran then “pulled it toward Iranian waters with a tugboat in order to carry out the necessary repairs,” Mousavi said, adding that more information on the incident would be announced later.
His remarks followed reports that the Panama-flagged Riah, an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates, disappeared in Iranian waters late Saturday. Shipping tracking data showed that it was on its way to Sharjah in the UAE before it stopped transmitting its position off the coast of Iran’s Qeshm Island in the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil choke point.
Both Emirati and U.S. officials said the Riah, a small oil-products tanker, did not send a distress call.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Tuesday that the U.S. military was aware of the disappearance and had no additional information to share.
There were conflicting reports about the ownership of the Riah, but according to Equasis, a shipping industry database, it is operated by Prime Tankers in Dubai.
An Emirati official said Tuesday that the tanker was “neither UAE-owned nor operated” and that it was not carrying any Emirati personnel.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.
“We are monitoring the situation with our international partners,” he said.
The mystery over the vessel comes amid soaring tensions in the Persian Gulf region following a spate of attacks on commercial tankers in recent months — incidents the United States has blamed on Iran.
Britain said last week that Iranian forces attempted to block a British oil tanker traversing the strait but were repelled by a royal navy frigate escorting the ship.
Iran has threatened to target British shipping assets in retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar earlier this month. British forces helped authorities in Gibraltar detain the vessel, Grace 1, which was carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil. Officials in the British territory in the Mediterranean said they suspected Grace 1 was traveling to the Syrian port at Baniyas in violation of European Union sanctions.
Iran, however, has denied involvement in the attacks as well as the attempt to impede the British tanker, which was operated by London-based oil and gas firm BP.
The confrontation between Iran and Britain is part of a wider conflict brewing between Tehran and the West.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry Wednesday rejected remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggesting Iran was ready for talks on its ballistic missile program. In an interview with NBC, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said that if the United States wants to discuss Iran’s missile development, “they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region.”
Iran says that its missile force is part of its national defense strategy and provides a deterrent against well-armed regional adversaries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Tehran’s mission to the United Nations, where Zarif is holding meetings, said that the foreign minister’s comments were “hypothetical.”
Iran’s “missiles are absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period,” a spokesman for the mission, Alireza Miryousefi, tweeted Tuesday.
The United States has said that it is ready to talk to Iran without preconditions following the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the nuclear pact Tehran struck with world powers in 2015.
U.S. officials have embarked on a “maximum pressure campaign” to compel Iran to negotiate a broader agreement on its nuclear program, ballistic missiles and support for militant proxies.
Iran says it is open to talks if the United States lifts its near-total embargo on the country’s economy.