Detention of Iranian Oil Tanker and its Implications

Every episode in contemporary geo-politics presents the issue of conflicting narratives, pushed by each nation state. This concern has been further augmented by the advent of digital media, necessitating state propaganda to portray a justified international stance. July 4, 2019 was marked by the British Marines seizure of an oil tanker Grace 1, purported to be carrying Iranian oil to Syria, in violation of EU sanction laws at the port of Gibraltar. In what many perceived as a reciprocal move by Iran, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) on July 19, 2019, seized two oil tankers, one registered in the UK, the other in Liberia, in the Strait of Hormuz, marking a dramatic escalation in the rising tensions in the Gulf. The 30,000 tonne British flagged, Swedish owned, Stena Impero which was heading towards Saudi Arabia had suddenly left international sea lanes, heading north towards the Iranian island of Qeshm. Iran stated that Stena Impero was impounded after it had collided with a fishing boat, having violated provisions of international law. The arrest of Grace 1 had been rationalized by the British authorities as conforming to all provisions of international law, and only as a result of violation of sanction laws. This article chronicles these two events and studies it from a position of International law. Four issues have been presented, sanction laws and the arrest of Grace 1, provisions of International maritime law pertaining to the seizure of Stena Impero, allegations of State Piracy made by Britain, and implication of seizure of nation state ships on contemporary geo-political sphere.

While detaining Grace 1, authorities in Gibraltar had insisted that the ship had been detained because it was headed towards a port in Syria, and not because it was carrying Iranian oil. Gibraltar had updated its sanction laws only 36 hours before the British marines took action, incorporating Sanction Regulations 2019 which allowed the authorities to “designate and detain” any vessel which was suspected of breaching the sanctions imposed by European Union. This implies that meticulous prior planning was involved on the part of the British authorities, and this was not a case of an abrupt breach of law and consequent seizure. The European Union’s sanctions detailed in the European Union Council Regulation No. 36/2012 prohibit the export of goods that can be used for suppression or for dual-use under Annex IA, which includes crude oil. Grace 1 was deregistered by Panama from its shipping registry on suspicion of breach of sanctions. The only claim Iran has to the ship is the fact that it was claiming Iranian crude oil, as there is no evidence that the ship had been registered by Iran. The UNCLOS Article 44 states that “States bordering straits shall not hamper transit passage” unless the passing ship uses threat or force and does not comply with recognized international Regulations on Collisions. Sanction laws of the European Union are a collective National law of the European States. Thus, in detaining ships pursuant to National laws, a conflict between National laws and the UNCLOS arises. The United States of America can bypass this as instead of signing the UNCLOS, it had formed a new “United States Ocean Policy”, to reserve its right to issue unilateral sanctions.  Britain having ratified the provisions of UNCLOS does not enjoy the same freedom, and must justify the apparent conflict between the provisions of UNCLOS and Sanction laws.

The Director-General of the Ports and Maritime Department of Hormuzgan province, stated that the British flagged ship Stena Impero was detained, after it was involved in a collision and consequently failed to respond. The United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in Part III details the legal provisions for Straits critical to international shipping. Article 34(2) of UNCLOS states that, the sovereignty or jurisdiction of the States bordering the straits is exercised, subject to Part III and to other rules of international law. Thus, the jurisdiction of countries on such Straits is subject to the provisions of the UNCLOS. The duties ships must undertake during passage through such straits has also been enumerated under Article 39 which specifies that, ships during transit must refrain from any activities other than those incident to their normal modes of continuous and expeditious transit unless rendered necessary by force majeure or by distress. Iran’s main contention being that Stena Impero having collided with fishing boats had, violated the provisions of innocent passages as enumerated in Article 45, and thus diverted from normal modes of transportation. Ships in transit are also bound to comply with the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, violation of which is prohibited under Article 39(1)(b) of the UNCLOS. States bordering such straits are prohibited from suspending transit passage by Article 44.

Considering the established legal regime on the issue, Iran is yet to issue a statement specifying what provision of international shipping law was violated by the ship, or the specific limit of Iran’s territorial sea, where the seizure took place. It is imperative to note that although Iran has signed the UNCLOS, unlike U.K it has not ratified the provisions of the Act, thus raising the question, if Iran is even bound by anything in the treaty.

British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt stated in Parliament that in seizing the ship, Iran had committed an act of “State Piracy”. Piracy defined in UNCLOS Article 101 establishes that piracy can only be, “committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship”. Article 102 conforms that only in case of a mutiny, where the crew stops following directions of its nation state can a government warship commit the act of privacy. The word “State Piracy” is not recognized in international law. A State-owned warship can only commit the act of piracy if its crew has committed mutiny and engaged in endeavors for their personal gain. If Britain recognizes the seizure as a State act of naval capture, the captured oil tanker will have to be addressed as prize under admiralty law, indicating relief only though Admiralty Courts. The issue is unlikely to come up for hearing before any international court or tribunal as that would require the consent of Iran to be sued. Britain’s best legal defence presently is to justify the 40-year-old UNCLOS as having acquired the status of customary international law, making all parties bound to it. The claims made by the owner of the oil tanker, the Stena Impero stating that the ship was seized while it was in international water is also not very believable as most of Strait of Hormuz falls within the territorial waters of Iran and Oman.

International laws on shipping as discussed above are only applicable in peacetime. During war time all such laws become suspended, and the activity of States may be regulated by international conflict laws. Till now both Britain and Iran have not entertained any military options to be exercised. Although, U.K failing to advocate a European-led task force to protect ships at the Strait of Hormuz, has joined the American-led mission for protection of ships. Defying a request for extension of detention, authorities of Gibraltar on August 15,2019, approved the release of Grace 1 and its crew. Soon after its release, the ship sailed to Syria and reportedly completed delivery of oil. In the modern era, all Sate actors have recognized that a large-scale conflict is anti-existence in its essence making efforts to avoid one. Due to their assets and allies in the Middle- East, and the threat of Iranian missiles, United States and Britain cannot afford an open conflict. The seizure of the Iranian ship can be discerned as an attempt to test the waters, and evaluate the extent of an Iranian response.

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