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story.lead_photo.caption In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in the inauguration ceremony of a power plant in northwestern Iran, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Rouhani said U.S. financial sanctions on Iran's foreign minister are "childish" and a barrier to diplomacy. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian forces on Wednesday seized a foreign ship in the Persian Gulf, state media reported Sunday, marking the Revolutionary Guard's third seizure of a vessel since July 14.

The vessel is suspected of carrying 4,403 barrels of diesel fuel smuggled from Iran, the paramilitary force said on its Sepah News portal, without giving any other details about the nationality of the ship or its operator.

State TV and the semiofficial Fars news agency reported that the ship was seized near Farsi Island, where a Revolutionary Guard naval base is located. The island sits in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran, north of the Strait of Hormuz, which links to the Gulf of Oman.

The vessel was taken to Bushehr port on Iran's southwest coast, and its cargo was confiscated and handed over to the National Oil Distribution Company of Iran. All seven foreign crew members were arrested.

"This foreign vessel had received the fuel from other ships and was transferring it to Persian Gulf Arab states," Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Ramazan Zirahi said in comments carried by the Fars news agency.

It was not immediately clear why a ship carrying Iranian diesel fuel would transfer its cargo to oil-exporting Gulf states.

However, smuggling has been a source of concern in Iran. Iranian media reported last month that some 190,000 barrels of government-subsidized Iranian fuel are smuggled daily to other countries where prices are much higher.

The allegedly smuggled fuel is a minuscule amount in oil terms. The largest supertankers are capable of hauling cargoes of 2 million barrels. A barrel is 42 gallons.

The U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said it did not have information to confirm Iran's reports. Maritime tracking experts also said they did not have any immediate information about the incident or details on the vessel.

Ranjith Raja, a senior analyst at data firm Refinitiv, said that based on the amount of fuel reported smuggled, the ship could be a barge or supply vessel instead of a merchant tanker. If true, that would make it almost impossible to pinpoint which ship had been seized because numerous supply vessels operate in the area, he added.

Maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global said that, if confirmed, this is likely to be "another relatively low-key interception designed to signal to the West that Iran maintains the capability and intent to exercise its influence" in the Persian Gulf.

Iran is resisting U.S. sanctions that are crippling its all-important oil exports, and it is hitting back after one of its ships was seized July 4 near Gibraltar. Iran grabbed a British tanker, the Stena Impero, in Hormuz two weeks later and continues to hold it.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces last month also confirmed they'd seized a United Arab Emirates-based oil tanker, the Panamanian-flagged MT Riah, alleging it had smuggled some 6,285 barrels of fuel from Iranian smugglers to foreign customers.

The passage at the mouth of the Persian Gulf accounts for about a third of the world's seaborne oil flows. Some 67,533 ships sailed through the strait last year, according to data from maritime publication Lloyd's List sourcing research by Russell Group.

To reduce the risks of navigating the waterway, the Royal Navy has started to escort British ships, and a plan for a European naval mission is taking shape.

The U.S. has embarked on a parallel operation that the Europeans are wary of joining for fear of being identified with President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure campaign" against Iran. Trump decided last year to withdraw the U.S. from Iran's 2015 nuclear accord with world powers and impose sweeping sanctions on the country, crippling its economy.

In response, Iran has abandoned restrictions on uranium enrichment, downed a U.S. drone and test-fired a ballistic missile. It's also been accused of carrying out a number of attacks on tankers near Hormuz.

The announcement of the ship's capture coincides with a joint meeting between the Iranian and Qatari coast guards in Tehran aimed at improving and developing maritime cooperation between the Gulf neighbors, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported earlier Sunday. That gathering follows a rare meeting between the coast guards of Iran and the United Arab Emirates last week.

U.S. UPBEAT

Senior U.S. leaders expressed confidence that they will be able to persuade allies to help protect shipping in the Persian Gulf area against Iranian threats, but they provided no new details Sunday on which nations may be willing to participate.

Speaking in Sydney at a meeting between U.S. and Australian leaders, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he has already gotten a good response from allies and that some announcements could be expected soon. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that a lot of conversations are taking place.

But their Australian counterparts in Sydney made no commitments.

"The request the United States has made is a very serious one, and a complex one. That's why we are currently giving this request very serious consideration," said Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds. "No decision has been made."

She said her country will decide based on what is in its own best sovereign interests.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the Pentagon has developed a specific plan, and the U.S. military's main role would be to provide "maritime domain awareness" -- intelligence and surveillance information -- to the ships of coalition partners that would conduct patrols in vulnerable waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb, a heavily trafficked strait between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.

Any escorting of commercial ships would be done by military ships sailing under the flag of the commercial vessel, he said.

Esper broached the idea of a coalition to allies during a NATO meeting, but so far the U.S. has received few public commitments from other nations.

Pompeo and Esper, however, suggested Sunday that nations are quietly expressing some support for a coalition and may be willing to make public commitments soon.

Information for this article was contributed by Mehdi Fattahi, Aya Batrawy and Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press; and by Shaji Mathew and Arsalan Shahla of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 08/05/2019

Print Headline: 3rd ship detained off coast of Iran; craft smuggling diesel fuel, it says

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