NEW DELHI — Iran has released nine Indian mariners it had held after seizing a foreign tanker that it claimed was smuggling Iranian oil, the Indian Foreign Ministry said on Friday.
The tanker, the Riah, which is based in the United Arab Emirates but registered in Panama, was seized nearly two weeks ago in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which 20 percent of the world’s oil supply is shipped.
With a simmering conflict pitting Iran against the United States and its gulf allies, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the seizure was one of several recent incidents demonstrating how vulnerable that oil flow is to disruption. Iran has also impounded a British tanker, apparently in retaliation for Britain detaining an Iranian tanker at Gibraltar, leading to talk of a potential swap.
Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said the Riah and its 12 Indian crew members were detained by the Iranian Coast Guard on July 13. “Nine crew members have been released, and they will be on their way to India soon,” he said.
He added that India’s diplomatic mission in Iran had requested the release of the remaining Indian sailors — who, according to several news reports, include the ship’s captain.
Another ministry spokesman, Pawan Badhe, said that the Iranian authorities approved the release on Monday, but that he did not know when they were actually set free.
Analysts said that Iran has been willing to be confrontational with the Emiratis, but it has ample incentives not to aggravate its usually cordial relations with India.
India buys oil from Iran, and trade arrangements include Indian financing and operation of a major port at Chabahar, on the southern coast of Iran. President Trump has imposed sanctions designed to cut off Iran’s ability to do business with other countries.
“Indo-Iranian relations are on the surface fine, but beneath it there are a number of challenges,” said Harsh V. Pant, the head of strategic studies at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank, and a professor of international relations at King’s College London.
“The Trump sanctions have further constrained India’s options,” he said. “Not only has India’s oil imports from Iran come down drastically but India is also struggling with its high-profile Chabahar project.”
Iran’s detention of the tanker crew, Mr. Pant added, had many Indians asking “why would a so-called friend not release the sailors who were a collateral in Iran’s conflict with the West.”
The Riah was registered in Panama at the time of the seizure, and was chartered by KRB Petrochemicals, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. There have been conflicting reports about its ownership, most pointing to one or more Emirati companies, but Emirati officials have denied that the ship is Emirati.