DUBAI    -   The US “has suspicions” that a Gulf oil tanker out of contact since it stopped transmitting its location on Saturday has been seized by Iran, a defence official has said. Tracking data from the MT Riah last placing it in the strait of Hormuz and heading towards Iranian waters has raised concerns about the status of the vessel amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US. “Could it have broken down or been towed for assistance? That’s a possibility. But the longer there is a period of no contact, it’s going to be a concern,” the US defence official told the Associated Press. The UAE-based and Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Riah typically made trips from Dubai and Sharjah on the UAE’s west coast before going through the strait of Hormuz and heading to Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. However, something happened to the vessel after 11pm on Saturday, according to tracking data, when its last position showed it pointing towards Iran. Capt Ranjith Raja of the data firm Refinitiv said the tanker had not switched off its tracking in three months of trips around the UAE.

“That is a red flag,” Raja said.

The US defence official said the tanker was near Qeshm Island, which has a Iranian Revolutionary Guard base on it. The official said it was yet to contact its owners or UAE authorities.

A UAE official said: “The tanker in question is neither UAE owned nor operated, does not carry Emirati personnel, and did not emit a distress call. We are monitoring the situation.”

Iranian officials have not said anything publicly about the ship. Iran’s unravelling nuclear deal with world powers has led to increased tensions in the Gulf region after the US pulled out last year and re-imposed economic sanctions.

The US has sent advanced fighter jets and thousands of extra troops into the Middle East while mysterious attacks on oil tankers and the shooting down of a US military surveillance drone by Iran have added to the fears of an armed conflict breaking out.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday his country would retaliate over the seizure off Gibraltar of an Iranian super tanker carrying 2.1m barrels of light crude oil. The vessel was seized with the help of British Royal Marines.

“God willing, the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evil without a response,” he said.