Coast guard officials from Iran seized a boat on Saturday and arrested 12 Filipinos, who they claimed were part of a “fuel-smuggling ring” in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA said: “A foreign tugboat was confiscated as well as 283,900 liters (75,000 gallons) of petrol worth 233.71 billion rials (about $2 million).”

ISNA quoted Major Hossein Dehaki, the coast guard chief in the southern province of Hormozgan, saying: “Twelve Philippine nationals were arrested and the relevant judiciary officials are currently taking the required legal measures.”

Dehaki said the group was believed to be a fuel-smuggling ring. The shipment of fuel had been confiscated after the tugboat was intercepted close to Sirik county.

The seizure comes amid tensions in the Gulf after the United States unilaterally withdrew from a nuclear deal putting curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions.

Ships attacked, tankers seized

The escalation has seen ships mysteriously attacked, drones downed and oil tankers seized in the Strait of Hormuz – a chokepoint for a third of world’s seaborne oil.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained a “foreign tanker” in Gulf waters on July 14 for allegedly smuggling contraband fuel.

Maritime tracking service TankerTrackers reported the Panamanian-flagged MT Riah, used in the strait for fuelling other vessels, had crossed into Iranian waters, and at that point its automatic identification system stopped sending signals.

In the most high-profile seizure, the Guards impounded the British-flagged Stena Impero tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19 for breaking “international maritime rules”.

Iran also seized another ship on July 31 with seven foreign crew onboard over fuel smuggling, but it has not revealed the vessel’s identity or the nationality of its crew.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper talks to the press with French army minister after their meeting in Paris on September 7, 2019. Photo: Zakaria Abdelkafi / AFP

Uranium stockpile

Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday he was “not surprised” Iran had turned on advanced centrifuges to increase uranium stockpiles, a further breach of the 2015 nuclear deal which Washington pulled out of last year.

“I’m not surprised that Iran has announced that it’s going to violate the JCPOA,” Esper said in Paris, using the official name of the accord signed in Vienna four years ago.

“They had been violating it, they had violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty for many years, so it’s no surprise that the Iranians are going to pursue what the Iranians have always intended to pursue,” he added, following talks with his French counterpart Florence Parly.

Esper was in France after visits to London and Stuttgart, Germany, to meet with NATO allies since taking up his post in July.

Parly reiterated France’s calls for Tehran to “respect the Vienna accord”, adding “we will continue with all our diplomatic efforts in this direction. We have to continue.”

Britain criticized Iran’s announcement that it had fired up advanced centrifuges to boost its enriched uranium stockpiles. “This third step away from its commitments under the nuclear deal is particularly disappointing at a time when we and our European and international partners are working hard to de-escalate tensions with Iran,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

France and other EU nations have been trying to ease tensions in the Gulf since President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions that have hit the Iranian economy hard.

President Emmanuel Macron has overseen recent talks between French and Iranian officials, and even secured a potential opening with Trump at last month’s G7 summit, when he said he would be willing to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.

Esper said he had “productive discussions” with Parly, though neither indicated any progress had been made on de-escalating the conflict.

Disagree on Gulf mission

They agreed to disagree on the US’s new “maritime security mission” in the Gulf, aimed at ensuring open passage for vessels through the Strait of Hormuz after a series of incidents, including ship seizures by Iranian forces.

France has declined to join the US initiative and instead sought out like-minded partners for its own surveillance of the strategic waterway.

“The goal is to rally as many partners and means of surveillance as possible to improve security in the Gulf, and there’s absolutely no competition between these initiatives,” Parly said.

Esper said the US effort “is about deterring bad behavior.”

“Obviously our preference is that all countries join underneath this broader umbrella,” he said.

China warning

Esper reiterated that China along with Russia were the main threats as the US shapes its defense strategy for the coming years, and warned Europe about its own vulnerabilities to the two countries as well.

“China is seeking to gain influence around the world and throughout Europe, in many ways contrary to the interests of European states,” he said.

Yet the prospect of huge Chinese spending has opened doors to Beijing across the Indo-Pacific region and into Africa, with Italy also recently accepting billions of euros from China for a major port expansion.

“As countries increase their dependence on Chinese investment and trade, they become more susceptible to coercion and retribution when they act outside of Beijing’s wishes,” Esper said.

But he declined to confirm if the US defense shift toward China and Russia would lead to fewer American troops in Africa, where France is leading efforts against Islamic terrorist groups operating across large swaths of sub-Saharan territory.

“I’ve not made any decisions,” Esper said. “I’m looking at every theatre, and every command, to figure out how I can economize our forces, how I can optimize our assets.”

He praised France’s role, saying its was “directly benefiting the security of Europe,” and revealing that “earlier this week our French partners provided a lifesaving medical evacuation for a US soldier in Africa.”

Analysts have speculated the US may shift to a drone-based presence for Africa, and France has often sought American surveillance and drone strikes for operations by its 4,500-strong Barkhane counter-insurgency force.

With reporting by AFP