Published On: Wed, Jul 24th, 2019

The MT Riah mystery, and why Johnson won’t be the help Trump was hoping for

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At a time when corporate-media has been full of images of the crew of the Stena Impero, we might be excused for forgetting that Iran seized another vessel in the Hormuz Straits last week. Like the ship itself was wont to do, news about the MT Riah has disappeared of the tracking scanner – although this is not entirely true. Some British corporate-media has deigned to cover the fact that Panama has moved to withdraw the registration of the vessel whereby it will no longer fly under that nation’s flag. Although not conceding that the Iranians may have been justified, the Guardian certainly couldn’t cover the story without mentioning how Panama’s Maritime Authority “roundly condemn[ed] the use of Panamanian flagged ships for illicit activities”, and that its view was that the Riah had “deliberately violated international regulations”. The Guardian piece summarised the detail of the violation as “not reporting any unusual situation” – which is extremely interesting, given the superficial reason given by the Iranians for the ship’s seizure was smuggling. If we feel, as we deal with this story, that there is always a piece of vital information missing, then that’s because there undoubtedly is. The question, of course, is why? A possible answer is that the Riah is a diplomatically sensitive object. It is only reasonable to suppose that when governments obtain data or assets belonging to each other, and this material is sensitive, to disclose it publically would be to disarm it of its value as leverage in diplomacy. It could be that, for whatever reason, the Riah is likely material along those lines.

In any case, that the ship was to be de-flagged is the extent to which the Riah story has developed in a week. No more is known that sheds light on the nature of the crew (contrast with the relative Hello Magazine treatment of those living and working on the Stena Impero), and there is still no clear consensus about which national government should be raising issue about its seizing out of any loose sense of ownership (apparently, only the US has done this, as was covered in the previous FBEL article, Iranian humiliation of British Government, and pressure to break the will for American sanctions).

It could be argued that there is little interest in the Riah because, it having been caught smuggling – allegedly – it is an internal matter for Iran; in other words, as a strict policing matter, and with no edge to be gained in international relations, Iran doesn’t see any point in releasing information for the purpose of engaging (primarily) US and UK public opinion as far as it appreciates a tussle of will between the governments of those two states and Iran. On the other side, the vessel’s supposed criminal endeavours would induce reluctance in foreign governments to make a fuss. Well, this is perhaps a naïve argument that works on the assumption that the Iranian allegation of smuggling is a fact. Even if this was the case, there should surely be some interest in the welfare of the crew – shady characters or not. (In contrast, see, here, how Stena is anxious to visit its captive crew members). One of the very few things we do know about the Riah is that it is not Iranian. Presumably, too, the 12 crew are also foreign [and we have heard tell that they are not].

It has to be said, that the Riah is mysterious was something that pretty much became established at the beginning of its fame (or infamy). The way it was discovered missing appears to be intrinsically linked to its shady business, and therefore US involvement in this process is suspicious. Moreover, there is no established fact regarding the way it came to be in the possession of the Iranians, as if there had only been cover stories that the US and UK, principally, have not necessarily contradicted.

On 16th July, the world knew about a missing ship, the Riah, that the US Government feared had been seized by Iran. An email had been sent by a US State Department spokesman to Reuters – this according to Al Jazeera – and apparently filtered to CNN, which was the first corporate-media outlet to report US suspicions of a missing ship. On that same day, the world also knew about a vessel in the possession of the Iranians that they did not name. It was not known if the two were one and the same ship. A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Abbas Mousavi (cited by the semi-official ISNA news agency) only said a craft had received assistance and had been towed into Iranian waters.

Of course, the unnamed ship was indeed the Riah, and whatever happened to it so that it was in Iranian custody on 16th July was a process that commenced even before the 14th July – the day when its transponder was turned off. And when one looks closer at the details of this process, one starts to appreciate that a great part of the mystery of the Riah is down to the fact of its arriving in Iranian waters – where it undoubtedly should not have been – with its transponder still on. The Riah was on its way through the shipping lane (north of the Omani exclave) from east to west when, at the point closest to Iranian waters, it left what should have been its course, and plied towards Iran.

Now, in a piece that was quoted in the previous FBEL article, the Guardian, citing a data analyst, claimed that the vessel “had not switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE”; that the transponder had been turned off was “a red flag”. This was misleading because it didn’t reflect broader reality, which was confirmed by specialist maritime publications, whereby the Riah would certainly navigate the straits without being traceable by transponder signal, and had racked up reasonably long durations doing this (please note, Lloyds List Maritime Intelligence reports that the Riah has a sister ship, the Hayla, that has not signalled its position from the same vicinity since April 4th).

Maybe the real red flag where the Riah is concerned is that its transponder was on in Iranian waters. So, there are two issues here. Would the Riah have gone into Iranian waters with its transponder on, and if so, why? And is this “real red flag” the reason why the Americans knew that something was wrong with the Riah?

The Iranians, of course, explained the Riah being in their waters with a story about it being a craft in need of rescue. At the time, there was counter information in corporate-media that told of no other nation but Iran having received any distress call. Since then, there have been a couple of corporate-media articles that might well provide an explanation, even though they are actually concerned with the seizure of the Stena Impero. The theory (coming from Military Intelligence) has it that Iran manipulated GPS readings so that the British-flagged tanker steered itself into a trap. On the other had, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, very recently confirmed the Iranian version of events with regards this vessel:

 The UK ship had turned down its signal for more time than it was allowed to [and] was passing through the wrong channel, endangering the safety and security of shipping and navigation in the strait of Hormuz, for which we are responsible.

The Stena Impero, evidently, was (also) in the shipping lanes between Iran and the Omani exclave on the south – which are in fact outside of Iranian territorial waters, although evidently this doesn’t mean that that country, with its coast on that entire body of water, can’t claim a right to police it.

This sort of unabashed clarity from Zarif, reinforced by audio recordings of the Iranians telling the Stena Impero to change course, certainly makes the GPS-meddling story appear to have the ring of the usual sort of anti-Russia propaganda about it (the Russian connection is through the technology that would have had to have been shared with Iran for that nation to possess it). However, if the story does not apply to the Stena Impero, it could to the Riah – a ship with a veil of secrecy undoubtedly drawn across her: a ship that is not supposed to be discussed, unless perhaps it is done so tangentially. And while the facts of the seizing of the Stena Impero will no doubt be confirmed (or denied) when the crew members, on their release, eventually tell their tale, the same cannot be said of the Riah, which has a crew that can’t be talked about.†

While this was covered a little bit in the previous article, it was not dealt with enough: the question was posed, how did the US – the State Department, as it turns out – know that the Riah should not have turned off its transponder on this particular occasion? Is the answer that the transponder going off was not the red flag in itself?

Interestingly, via TradeWinds (“latest shipping and maritime news”) [and as told by LSS (a maritime security firm)] the vessel manager at the company Mouj-al-Bahar General Trading – which is the closest anyone could pin the information down in relation to management of the vessel‡ – reported that “there had been no contact with the crew… for two days”. Presumably, this was information passed to Mouj-al-Bahar by the company that had chartered the Riah (see foot note). This isn’t the same as saying that there was no signal from a transponder. Perhaps the US’s alarm came from the lack of routine radio contact with the crew?

Obviously, the identity of the crew is perhaps the most significant of that missing information that was discussed at the top of this page. That the crew remains anonymous is in itself remarkable in this day and age, and is a detail that cannot be shrugged off as irrelevant. The previous FBEL article made mention of an idea of who the crew could be – and with this in mind, attention should be drawn to a throw-away line in a Telegraph piece from 18th July that might be more significant that it seems. It reads:

The MT Riah, which began her journey on July 5 near a port off the coast of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, went missing on July 14. The UAE, where Riah is based, has denied she was their vessel, as did the UK.

As far as the author knows, there is no information on whether the UK have or have not denied ownership of the Riah. As mentioned in the last FBEL article, on the 18th July, the BBC reported that

The UK government said it was seeking further information over the reports and urged the Iranian authorities to “de-escalate the situation in the region”.

That was the 18th – pretty much when reporting on the Riah stopped. In fact, that was the day of the supposed US take down of an Iranian drone – and so all the media noise became about that fairytale. How convenient. But back to the point at hand, it is surprising to see, in the Telegraph piece, the incidence of this casual denial – especially tagged-on the way it is so that the denial of UAE runs in to it – when there appears to be no basis for it, and no requirement. It’s like a kneejerk protest of innocence by a naughty boy who has been caught out. Obviously, it is not evidence of anything, but it is interesting all the same.

Ultimately, if the Riah is a bargaining chip in the general game – as was posited in the previous article – we might well see evidence in the playing out of this contest. We should note, then, that in the last few days the UK government has announced a preference for an EU operation safeguarding British merchant vessels in the Hormuz Strait. This appears to be in favour of an alternative operation under US leadership. Famously, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has told Britain to look after its own shipping, but one can bet the house that this came after Pompeo had been spurned first. There is no way that the US would turn Britain out of its main effort to portray Iran as being isolated and a threat to the world – and yet, Britain has probably scuppered it. Here’s what was written in the previous FBEL article:

Iran has identified Britain as a weak spot whereby the US Govermment can be denied the circumstances it requires to effectively motivate support on the domestic front…

It is the prospect of an extremely damaging British public backlash to military losses that would drive the Anglo-globalists to give concessions to the Iranians.

Because there is also now going to be a meeting in Vienna between the remaining signatories of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is the Trump regime that appears isolated. Indeed, the meeting will “discuss to what extent the agreement can be salvaged”. While this accord does in itself represent restriction of Iranian infrastructure, as explained here, insistence on it at this time is an undermining of the US pressure through sanctions to force a worse deal on Tehran. Moreover, the potential EU maritime mission to the Hormuz Straits, as proposed by Britain, is also a show of commitment to the upholding of the JCPOA – and very probably is symbolic, never to progress to hard facts on the ground. As Iain Duncan Smith muttered in the Commons, the Americans “are the only ones that have got any assets”.

Indeed, all those crowing about Britain needing the EU in spite of Brexit – and there has been a phenomenon of this – are being dishonest: an EU operation would be toothless, but that doesn’t matter. Because Iran has isolated the USA from its main partner in crime, it won’t have to touch British shipping. Indeed, Zarif has already reached out to Boris Johnson with assurances that no further confrontation is sought. On the other hand, there are pro-Brexit elements who are trying to latch an exit from the EU to the US global leadership as a kind of feature of it, and virulent anti-Iranism is part of this. Of course, we are mainly talking about Nigel Farage, a staunch promoter of Trump, and someone who has “argued the UK’s policy on Iran should mirror that of the Trump administration, which pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal”. While Farage and this – what we might call – Breitbartian camp, may be working to this end (another reason to reject the Brexit Party), Brexit is certainly not about a slight adjustment in the form of globalism. It is, in actual fact, an expression of a broader movement against globalists, and their key political lackeys, so that they cannot start wars in places such as Syria – which, ironically, is at the root of this current tanker crisis.

 

Update; 26/07/2019:

India’s foreign ministry has announced that nine crew of the Riah have been released, and “will be on their way to India soon”. The presumption, then, is that they are Indian. However, “there was no immediate comment by Iranian officials”, said Al Jazeera – and this is crucial. Moreover, this development indicates that the Iranian justice system has a blind spot when it comes to oil smuggling, which doesn’t feel right – unless, of course, no one was smuggling oil.

Additionally, in the last hour (as at 13:40), the Independent has reported this: “An Iranian oil tanker seized by Royal Marines near Gibraltar earlier this month will be released soon, a senior Iranian MP has claimed.”  It goes on:

Mojtaba Zonnour, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said on Thursday…”We have started our legal and diplomatic efforts in various dimensions to secure the release of the tanker,” he said, adding that international regulations will force the UK to release it soon.

And lest we forget, there was also the story of July 24th, based on an Iranian claim, that a British mediator had been despatched to Iran – naturally, the British denied it.

So unless there is full disclosure, the author’s instinct is that the Indian aspect is a cover story: undoubtedly, nine crew members have been released, but they wouldn’t be Indian. The Indian Government involvement, in this case, would be a front – doing a favour for diplomatic advantage, having been the natural ally to ask for the best appearances sake because of the high proportion of Indian nationals on the British-flagged Stena Impero. The Al Jazeera article implies that the other three Riah crew members are also Indian. These would be the higher ranking “Indians”, no doubt.

‡ The Riah was chartered to an unnamed UAE company which reported a “high jacking” to Mouj-al-Bahar. Mouj-al-Bahar said that the vessel was Iraqi owned, and they had limited access to it.

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