Arab media is reporting that Iranian gunboats stopped an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf Saturday and detained all 11 crew members.
Iran's state-run Fars News Agency said neither the ship's nation of origin nor crew member nationalities were immediately clear, but that the tanker was smuggling diesel when seized by a naval unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) inside Iranian territorial waters.
The IRGC, which U.S. officials declared a terrorist organization in April of 2019, is a special branch of the Iranian armed forces answerable directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Fars broadcast footage of an Iranian gunboat carrying soldiers that accosted and boarded the ship. The video appeared to indicate the name of the ship was "Mariners," but it was not clear in which country the ship was registered. The video also showed a box of tissues on the bridge of the ship with Arabic or Persian script on it.
Commander of the IRGC's Naval Type 412 Zulfaqar, Col. Ahmed Hajian, who personally boarded the vessel, told Iranian TV that "over 150,000 liters of smuggled diesel fuel [were] on the ship." A video clip showed what appeared to be diesel in the tanks of the vessel. Hajian claimed the ship was in Iranian waters when it was seized, and that all crew members are undergoing interrogation.
In the news reports, Col. Hajian says that IRGC intelligence has been working to combat fuel smuggling at sea and has been monitoring the movements of foreign vessels in the Persian Gulf. He also says the vessel had entered Iranian waters illegally after turning off its electronic and navigation systems.
Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat based in London, told VOA that much of what we know so far is "speculation," but noted it would seem rather implausible that regional countries would be trying to smuggle diesel fuel into Iran as the IRGC is claiming.
"It is usually Iran that wants to offload diesel to gain some money and things like that, and it is very unlikely for other local countries to be smuggling diesel or products like that," said Khonsari.
Iranian ships have been known to smuggle diesel and other fuel oil products to countries like Syria and Yemen. Drones from the U.S. and several other countries are known to keep tabs on the movements of Iranian fuel smuggling. While Khonsari suggested it is possible that Iran was trying to protect one of its own ships in Saturday's seizure, VOA could not confirm whether the ship was Iranian.
Earlier this month, Iran announced it had released a Vietnamese-flagged tanker that the IRGC had seized in the Sea of Oman several weeks earlier.