Iran’s top leader has said his country will retaliate over the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British authorities.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the seizure of the ship “piracy” in a televised speech, saying: “God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evilness without a response.”
The Iranian supertanker, carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil, was seized with the help of British Royal Marines earlier this month off Gibraltar.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Saturday that Britain will facilitate the release of the ship if Iran can provide guarantees the vessel will not breach European sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.
Tensions have soared in the Persian Gulf over the past year as the Trump administration in the US has ramped up sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Meanwhile, tracking data shows an oil tanker based in the United Arab Emirates travelling through the Strait of Hormuz drifted off into Iranian waters and stopped transmitting its location more than two days ago.
It is not clear what happened to the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Riah late on Saturday night.
However, its last position showed it pointing towards Iran.
Oil tankers have previously been targeted as the Persian Gulf region took centre stage in a crisis over Iran’s unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.
The concern about the Riah comes as Iran continues its own high-pressure campaign over its nuclear programme after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord more than a year ago.
Recently, Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits of its 2015 nuclear deal, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.
However, those tensions have also seen the US send thousands of additional troops, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets into the Middle East.
Mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Iran shooting down a US military surveillance drone has added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.
The Riah, a 58-metre (190ft) oil tanker, typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast.
However, something happened to the vessel after 11pm on Saturday, according to tracking data.
Captain Ranjith Raja, of the data firm Refinitiv, told the Associated Press that the tanker had not switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE.
“That is a red flag,” Capt Raja said.
Iranian officials have not said anything publicly about the ship, nor have officials in the UAE.
The US navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees Middle East waters, declined to immediately comment.
The ship’s registered owner, Dubai-based Prime Tankers LLC, told the AP it had sold the ship to another company called Mouj Al-Bahar but a man who answered a telephone number registered to the firm told the AP it did not own any ships.