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Iran Seizes Foreign Oil Tanker, State Media Say


In Iran, state media are reporting the seizure of another tanker in the Persian Gulf. The ship was reportedly taken by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, and seven crew members were detained. It would mark the third seizure of a foreign ship by Iran in the past two weeks. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul, and he joins us now.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do we know so far about this latest seizure?

KENYON: Well, it occurred near Farsi Island - that's north of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Iranian media are quoting Revolutionary Guard Corps officials as saying the ship was detained after it allegedly received fuel from other vessels in order, they say, to transfer it to unnamed Gulf Arab states that Iran says amounts to a fuel smuggling. And smuggling of subsidized Iranian fuel is a real issue in the Gulf. There's profit to be made selling cheaper Iranian fuel at higher prices elsewhere.

But at this point, we don't have any confirmation that this vessel was doing that. And beyond that, we know that the seven crew members have been detained. And we're waiting for additional information.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been hearing these stories of seizures - right? - and threats for months, usually, though, involving British-flagged vessels. Remind us how this has developed. How did we get here?

KENYON: Well, British Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker, the Grace 1, that happened near Gibraltar last month. The U.K. said this vessel was taking oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Now, Iran's been supplying oil to Syria and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for years now, and nobody's done anything about it until this British action. Iran replied by saying the U.K. was acting at the behest of the U.S. And then not long after, Iran detained a British flag tanker, the Stena Impero. There was briefly some speculation that the two countries might be able to work something out, maybe exchange each other's seized vessels and put an end to this. But a British official, just a few days ago, repeated the U.K. doesn't like that idea. He said there's no question of a swap.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the reason we're talking about this - right? - is because there are concerns about this escalating out of control because there are a lot of tensions in the Gulf right now.

KENYON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Iran, the U.K. and the U.S. all say they don't want to see any armed conflict coming out of this. But the U.S. has beefed up its military presence in the Gulf. Of course, it has longstanding military bases, presence in the region. And Iran's military is also on alert. So analysts see the potential for further escalation as a very real risk.

We've got two foreign vessels in Iranian custody. We've got one Iranian tanker in British custody and no sign of the tensions cooling off. So what happens next is the big question and a lot of the options are not that great. I mean, remember, this is all happening in the context of the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Trump has been saying the return of American sanctions on Iran and other pressures are all designed to force Iran back to the negotiating table to hammer out a tougher version of the 2015 nuclear agreement - that's the one Trump pulled the U.S. out of. So far, Iran's unanimous response from the military to the supreme leader has been, nope, Iran doesn't negotiate under pressure. We're not going to do it. So we'll have to see if this continuation of commercial vessels being seized in the Persian Gulf adds more pressure for some kind of international response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul.

Thank you very much.

KENYON: Thanks, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANYONS OF STATIC'S "WAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.