TEHERAN • Iran has seized a foreign tanker in the Gulf, state media said yesterday, in what would be the third such seizure in a month amid heightened tensions with its foe, the United States.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "seized this ship around Farsi Island which was carrying around 700,000 litres of smuggled fuel", said a Guards statement quoted by official news agency Irna.
Seven foreign crew members were arrested in the operation last Wednesday night, said the Fars news agency.
Tensions between arch-enemies Iran and the US have soared this year after Washington stepped up its campaign of "maximum pressure" against Teheran.
Ships have been attacked, drones downed and oil tankers seized since May, a year after the US withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and began reimposing sanctions.
At the height of the crisis, US President Donald Trump called off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic's forces shot down a US drone.
The seizure of the latest tanker would be the third by Iran in less than a month in Gulf waters - a conduit for much of the world's crude oil. On July 18, the Guards said they had detained the Panama-flagged MT Riah for alleged fuel smuggling. And a day later, they announced they had impounded the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz for breaking "international maritime rules".
The identity of the latest vessel seized and the nationality of its crew were not revealed yesterday.
A statement from the Guards said the ship was transferred to Bushehr and its smuggled fuel was handed over to the authorities.
Fars quoted Brigadier-General Ramezan Zirahi, a commander of the Guards who carried out the seizure, as saying that the tanker had been en route to deliver fuel to Gulf Arab states.
The reports came after an Iranian general said the chances of a conflict breaking out in the Gulf region had decreased.
"At first glance, it may seem that the situation in the Persian Gulf is heading towards a military conflict, but when studying the situation more deeply, we see that chances for such a conflict become less probable," said Brigadier-General Ahmadreza Pourdastan.
"All countries which have interests in the region are by no means willing to see a new crisis in the Middle East," he said, quoted by Mehr news agency.
On the diplomatic front, officials in Iran said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had been hit with US sanctions after turning down an invitation to meet Mr Trump in Washington.
The sanctions announced last Wednesday are aimed at freezing any of Mr Zarif's assets in the US or controlled by US entities, as well as squeezing his ability to function as a globe-trotting diplomat.
The New Yorker magazine reported last Friday that Republican Senator Rand Paul had met Mr Zarif in the US on July 15 and had President Trump's blessing when he extended an invitation to the Iranian minister to go to the White House.
Officials in Iran confirmed the report and heaped scorn on the Trump administration for claiming to want dialogue with Iran while slapping sanctions on its top diplomat.
"For a government to constantly claim (to favour) negotiations and afterwards sanction the Foreign Minister... if this is not ridiculous, then what is it?" said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Rabiei.