Dubai, Jul 18 (AP/UNB) — Iran said Thursday its Revolutionary Guard seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for smuggling fuel out of the country, and hours later released video showing the vessel to be a United Arab Emirates-based ship that had vanished in Iranian waters over the weekend.
The announcement solved one mystery — the fate of the missing ship — but raised a host of other questions and heightened worries about the free flow of traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most critical petroleum shipping routes. One-fifth of global crude exports passes through the strait.
The incident happened with tensions running high between Iran and the United States over President Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal.
Iranian state television did not at first identify the seized vessel but said it was intercepted on Sunday and was involved in smuggling some 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of Iranian fuel. Iran did not identify the nationalities of the crew.
Crude prices, which had been falling since last week, ticked higher almost immediately after the announcement.
Iran said the tanker was seized south of its Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz. Neighboring Qeshm Island has a Revolutionary Guard base on it.
Hours after that initial report, Iranian TV released footage of the ship surrounded by Guard vessels and showed the registration number painted on its bridge, matching that of the UAE-based MT Riah.
The Panamanian-flagged tanker stopped transmitting its location early Sunday near Qeshm Island, according to data on the tracking site Maritime Traffic. However, it often did so over the past two years when nearing Iranian waters, other tracking data shows.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, declined to comment.
It was not immediately clear whether the seizure was a straightforward attempt by Iran to curb oil smuggling or also an effort to assert its authority in the strait and send a message to its rivals in the region. The UAE has long lobbied for tougher U.S. policy toward Iran, though more recently it has called for de-escalation.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the seized vessel was at best a "small tanker" and that Iranian forces are cracking down on fuel smuggling daily.
"We live in a very dangerous environment. The United States has pushed itself and the rest of the world into probably the brink of an abyss," he told reporters at the United Nations in New York. Zarif accused the Trump administration of "trying to starve our people" and "deplete our treasury" through sanctions.
Iranian media reported earlier this 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.
Analysts at the Israeli-based maritime risk analytics company Windward said that the Riah has been at sea for the past two years and has a pattern of turning off its location transmitters for days at a time, particularly when entering Iranian waters.
The firm said data suggests that for more than two years that the 58-meter (190-foot) Riah had been clandestinely receiving fuel from an unknown source off the UAE coast and delivering it to other tankers, which then take it to Yemen and Somalia.
No distress calls were made from the Riah, and no ship owner reported a missing vessel.
The ship's registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, told The Associated Press it had sold the vessel to another company, Mouj Al-Bahar. A man who answered a telephone number registered to the company told the AP it didn't own any ships.
Officials in the UAE said the ship was neither UAE-owned nor operated and carried no Emirati personnel.
In past weeks, the Persian Gulf region has seen six attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. has blamed on Iran, the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone by Iranian forces and a tense encounter between Iran's Guard and the British navy. Iran has denied involvement in the attacks or the British naval encounter.
The U.S. has also sent thousands of additional troops and increased its security presence in the region.
Meanwhile, Iran has begun increasing uranium production and enrichment beyond the limits of the 2015 accord in a bid to pressure Europe to find ways around U.S. sanctions.
On Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, urged European signatories of the deal to speed up their efforts to stop U.S. pressure, his website reported. He said efforts to stop Iran's nuclear activities "are not acceptable under any circumstance."
United Nations, Jul 18 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. is tightly limiting travel by Iranian officials visiting or assigned to the United Nations, sparking concern from the world body.
Representatives to the U.N. from Iran and some other countries have long had some limitations on their movements. But the new rules for Iranians — imposed as its foreign minister was preparing to arrive for U.N. meetings this week — are particularly strict.
Visiting officials, Iranian diplomats posted at the country's U.N. mission and their families now can travel only among Kennedy airport and three places in Manhattan: the mission, the Iranian ambassador's residence and a six-block radius that includes the U.N. headquarters, according to a diplomatic note sent Saturday to Iranian officials and seen by The Associated Press.
The diplomats can seek waivers for housing or hotels, but it is not known whether waivers would be granted or whether they could apply to doctors' appointments, children's schooling or other activities.
The new rules come amid rising tensions between two longtime adversaries. It's not immediately clear whether the limitations are the tightest the U.S. has ever imposed, but they are far more restrictive than a previous policy that let Iranian representatives to the U.N. travel within a 25-mile radius of Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan.
"It is certainly not a friendly action," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters Wednesday at the U.N.
He said that while he personally didn't need to go beyond the permitted places, the restrictions created "basically inhuman conditions" for the mission's diplomats and their families.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the organization had raised concerns about the limitations with the U.S. and Iranian missions.
"We'll continue to take up the matter as needed," he said.
The U.S. State Department said the restrictions are "fully consistent with our obligations" as the U.N.'s host country. "The U.S. intends to stick to its obligations," the department said Wednesday.
Tehran and Washington severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the hostage crisis that ensued when militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy.
Friction has flared anew after U.S. President Donald Trump last year pulled the U.S. out of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — a pact he called one-sided — and reimposed sanctions on Tehran's oil exports. The sanctions have exacerbated an economic crisis that has sent Iran's currency plummeting.
Iran recently began surpassing limits on the amount and purity of uranium it is allowed to stockpile under the nuclear agreement. Tehran has said the moves can be reversed if the deal's other participants come up with economic incentives that effectively offset the American sanctions.
The U.S. has sent thousands of troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Middle East, and fears are growing of a wider conflict after mysterious attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz blamed on Iran, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and Iran's downing of a U.S. military drone.
The U.S. also imposes various travel restrictions on U.N. diplomats from China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia and Syria. The list has varied over the years, and countries have periodically chafed at the limitations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told The Washington Post on Sunday that it is "absolutely appropriate" that Iran's foreign minister have the travel rights due under a longstanding U.S. agreement with the United Nations, but "nothing more than that."
"U.S. diplomats don't roam around Tehran, so we don't see any reason for Iranian diplomats to roam freely around New York City, either," he said.
Dubai, Jul 17 (AP/UNB) — Iran's foreign minister is telling a United Nations gathering that U.S. sanctions against his country amount to what he calls "economic terrorism."
Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke Wednesday at a sustainable development forum. He decried the U.S. sanctions and said "economic terrorism" is "deliberately targeting innocent civilians to achieve illegitimate political objectives."
The U.S. re-imposed tough sanctions on Tehran's oil exports after withdrawing last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers. U.S. President Donald Trump called the deal one-sided.
The sanctions exacerbated an economic crisis that has sent Iran's currency plummeting.
Iran recently began surpassing uranium enrichment limits set in the deal.
Tehran has said the moves can be reversed if the pact's other participants come up with economic incentives that effectively offset the American sanctions.
Iran's foreign minister says his country has no choice but to manufacture missiles for defensive purposes — comments that come after a remark by the top diplomat that seemed to suggest the missiles could be up for negotiations.
Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with NBC News that aired earlier this week that if the U.S. wants to talk about Iran's missiles, it needs "first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region."
However, Iran has long rejected negotiations over its missile program.
Zarif on Wednesday referred to the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and said that, "For 8 YEARS, Saddam (Hussein) showered our cities with missiles & bombs provided by East & West. Meanwhile, NO ONE sold Iran any means of defense. We had no choice but building our own. Now they complain."
Zarif also said: "Instead of skirting the issue, US must end arms sales to Saddam's reincarnations."
Portugal's foreign ministry is clarifying that its decision to temporarily stop granting visas to Iranians is due to work on improving security at its Tehran consular building.
The foreign ministry says the decision is not linked to any assessment of security conditions in Iran or any political consideration.
The ministry issued the clarification in a statement late on Tuesday, hours after Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva told a Portuguese parliament committee the halt on issuing visas to Iranians was due to "security reasons."
At the time he declined to give more information about what was behind the decision, saying he would only provide details privately to lawmakers on the committee.
The husband of a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran says she has been transferred to a hospital mental health facility.
Richard Ratcliffe said on Wednesday that his 40-year-old wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now in the mental health ward of Iman Khomeini hospital in Tehran.
He says he is "hopeful" this means she will be receiving better treatment and care.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Iran while traveling with the couple's young daughter in April 2016 and has been sentenced to five years in prison after being accused of spying, which she denies.
She and her husband recently ended a hunger strike designed to call attention to her plight. British officials have failed to secure her release despite repeated efforts.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe works for the charitable Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Iran says remarks by the country's foreign minister about Iran's missile program possibly being up for negotiations with the U.S. meant to challenge Washington's arms sales policy to the region — and were not meant to indicate a readiness by Tehran for any such talks.
The Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, tweeted late on Tuesday that Mohammad Javad Zarif's comments "threw the ball into the U.S. court while challenging America's arm sales" to its Mideast allies.
Zarif had said in an NBC News interview that if the U.S. wants to talk about Iran's missiles, "they need first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region."
Iran has long rejected negotiations over its missile program.
Iran's mission to the United Nations also described Zarif's comments as purely "hypothetical."
Riyadh, Jul 17 (AP/UNB) — The Saudi military says it has intercepted a drone launched at the kingdom's southern border by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Col. Turki al-Maliki, a military spokesman, was quoted in the state-run Saudi Press Agency on Wednesday as saying the drone was launched by the Houthi rebels from Yemen's governorate of Sanaa toward the Saudi city of Jizan.
A Saudi-led coalition allied with Yemen's government has been at war with the Houthis since 2015. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis, with Saudi-led airstrikes blamed for many civilian deaths.
Late Tuesday, al-Maliki had announced the interception of three other Houthi drones launched at Saudi cities near Yemen's border.
Bomb-laden drones launched by the Houthis have killed a civilian and wounded others in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.
Beirut, Jul 15 (AP/UNB) — A local official in Syria's Raqqa says workers have so far unearthed 313 bodies from a mass grave discovered last month near the northern city.
Yasser al-Khamees who leads a team of first responders says among the bodies found are those belonging to civilians, including women and children, as well as people believed to have been shot dead by IS militants.
The mass grave was discovered in mid-June on the southern edges of Raqqa. The city was the de facto capital of the Islamic State group's so-called Islamic caliphate, which spanned territories in Syria and Iraq.
U.S.-backed Syrian forces retook the city from IS in 2014 after gruesome battles that killed thousands and left the city in ruins.
Several other mass graves have previously been discovered in and around Raqqa.