After a relatively quiet couple of weeks, Iran upped the ante again this weekend. State media reported that the Revolutionary Guard seized an Iraqi oil tanker, which it accused of smuggling fuel. It is the third such vessel captured since July 13. The move comes as tensions continue to escalate between the quarantined Islamic Republic and the western powers, particularly the United States. A spokesman for the U.S. Navy, however, said they had no information to confirm the seizure.
The Islamic Republic News Agency reported on Sunday that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized the vessel Wednesday evening. The report claimed the tanker was in Iranian territorial waters, near Farsi Island, and was carrying 700,000 liters of diesel fuel. It, along with all seven crew members, were seized. IRGC commander Ramezan Zirahi said the tanker “was smuggling fuel for some Arab countries.” Its English language TV network, Press TV, aired a video which “shows the process through which the IRGC have halted the ship and taken it in to custody.” Meanwhile, the Iraqi News Agency reported that the Ministry of Oil has no connection to the ship, and is working to gather information about it. “The Ministry does not export diesel to the international market,” they said in a statement.
Since the U.S. reimposed sanctions, after pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Agreement last year, tensions have been high, and Iranian actions in the Strait of Hormuz increasingly more aggressive. In May and June, the U.S. accused Iran of two separate acts of sabotage on Saudi oil tankers, which Iran denied. Iran also shot down an American surveillance drone, which almost led to a retaliatory airstrike by the United States. Last month, Iran seized two other foreign tankers, the Panamanian MT Riah on July 13, and the British Stena Impero a week later. Both the U.S. and UK have stepped up patrols in the area, but have nonetheless been unable to prevent further seizures.
On Friday, The New Yorker reported a rather unexpected invitation was extended from an equally unorthodox source. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was invited to meet President Trump, in the Oval Office, by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The two met in New York on July 15. “With President Trump’s blessing,” the article states, “Paul had been working on the idea for several weeks, in consultation with the White House and the State Department.” However, the Iranian government rejected the invite, believing it to be not much more than a photo op. The U.S. government then imposed sanctions on Zarif personally at the end of July.
Debate continues in Washington as to what, if anything can or should be done about continued Iranian aggression. The Paul invite was clearly a power play from the anti-war right, which opposes any future intervention with Iran in particular, and foreign entanglements in general. On the other side, Trump’s hawks— Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John R. Bolton— continue to make the case for war. As the weary American public remains staunchly against a war of choice with Iran, it seems continued seizures by the IRGC are of but passing concern. It may then take something far more aggressive on the part of the Iranians to make the case for action more convincing.