Saudi Arabia says it has detained three members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after intercepting a boat loaded with weapons, heightening tensions between the regional powers.
The vessel was one of three intercepted in the kingdom’s waters while heading towards the Marjan oilfield, the Saudi information ministry said late on Monday.
The Revolutionary Guards are an elite force within Iran’s military and the Saudi statement said the Iranian boats — two of which it said escaped — were “loaded with weapons for subversive purposes”.
Iranian officials denied Riyadh’s version of events, saying the vessels were fishing boats and that one fisherman died in the confrontation last week.
Relations have hit a low after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in simultaneous Isis attacks that killed 18 people in Tehran this month. Both countries accuse each other of supporting extremists and stoking sectarian tensions as the two powers have been locked in a longstanding regional cold war.
Sunni Saudi Arabia has become increasingly assertive in regional politics and complains about what it regards as undue interference in the Arab world by predominantly Shia Iran, particularly in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
Riyadh and three Arab allies this month cut off air, land and sea links with Qatar, accusing the gas-rich state of backing and financing terrorism and cosying up to Iran. Doha has since received food supplies from Tehran as it seeks to counter the impact of the embargo.
On Sunday, Iran fired ballistic missiles into Syria for the first time to target Isis militants. The attack was also seen as a projection of military power as Tehran comes under increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia and the US. Iran has intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict to support President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states back the Syrian opposition.
The maritime incident on Friday illustrates the risk of further confrontation in the febrile atmosphere.
Iranian media quoted an interior ministry official as saying the three fishing boats were blown off course in choppy waters.
Farhad Siamar, son of a 52-year-old captain reportedly killed in the incident, said the fishermen were sailing after sunset because of the hot summer temperatures.
“We heard . . . a barrage of gunfire. When they [the Saudi navy] came closer to us . . . after seeing our equipment, they realised we were fishermen. But they continued shooting, ” he told the Etemad newspaper. “Six or seven bullets hit us while my father and I were on the boat’s floor. Suddenly, my father said he was shot in the back.”
He urged Iranian authorities to take revenge. “It happens a lot that Saudi fishermen come close to Iranian waters but they never face shootings . . . they knew we were fishermen but still shot at us,” Mr Siamar added.