The naval forces of the Islamic Revolution Guards Crops (I.R.G.C.) have seized a Saudi vessel for allegedly trespassing on Iranian territorial waters, the Iranian media reported today. Majid Agha-Babaei, the director-general of border affairs at Iran’s Interior Ministry, said I.R.G.C. forces commandeered the boat at 8 p.m. Tehran time yesterday. The vessel’s four crew members – reportedly all Indian nationals – are currently in detention. According to I.R.G.C.-affiliated Fars News Agency, the fishing vessel had sailed from the Saudi port of Darin and was stopped by the I.R.G.C. in Iranian waters close to Bushehr Province.
Comment: The incident is the latest sign of escalating tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen whether the Iranian authorities will release the Saudi vessel’s crew members after questioning, or will keep them in detention and use them for a potential prisoner exchange with Iranian nationals recently arrested by Saudi naval forces.
Last month, Saudi officials said the country’s naval forces had captured three I.R.G.C. members reportedly navigating a boat laden with explosives toward the Saudi-owned Marjan oilfield. Iranian officials confirmed the incident had happened but claimed those detained were “simple fishermen” not I.R.G.C. personnel. A statement by the Saudi Arabia’s Information and Culture Ministry said the three Iranian citizens were I.R.G.C. members who had made it clear their action was “intended to be a terrorist act in Saudi territorial waters designed to cause severe damage to people and property.” It added: "The three captured members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are now being questioned by Saudi authorities," it said, citing a Saudi official.
Relations between Tehran and Riyadh are at their worst in almost three decades. Diplomatic ties between the two countries took a nosedive in January 2016 when Iranian mobs torched the Saudi embassy to protest the execution of a Shiite cleric in the Kingdom. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged last month that Iranian authorities did not manage the embassy attack and its aftermath properly.
In recent years, Iran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and Houthi rebels in Yemen have particularly troubled Riyadh and its regional allies. Last month, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states severed diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar over Doha’s close ties with Tehran and alleged support for terrorism. And after the Islamic State attacks in Tehran days later, Iranian officials blamed Saudi Arabia and the United States of being behind the attacks and vowed retaliation.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.