by Nat South for The Saker Blog

British flagged ship with only 23 seafarers onboard of Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino nationality. UK flag, Swedish company. That’s a reflection today of commercial shipping industry for you.  All but in name.

Ship operators are already getting cold feet over Brexit, so these latest incidents are going to further undermine operators using the UK as a flag of convenience.

Seizure of commercial ships is just tit for tat idiocy. There were no reasonable grounds for detaining any of the tankers.  I am not even going to go down that rabbit hole of when Gibraltar is in the EU or not or the permanent squabble over sovereignty, other to say London seem to move the goalposts when it suits it, made worse by being at the beck and call of Washington. Whim, incoherent. The Iranian response is pure retaliation disguised as lawful action, done for the Iranian tanker seizure in Gibraltar. Likewise, the Gibraltar authorities implemented a new law to be able to seize the tanker

and also have recently announced today it would extend the detention for another 30 days. Iran has threatened to retaliate if its ship was not released.

The UK took this threat seriously for a short while, with providing a naval escort for the tanker ‘British Heritage’. There are numerous transits of ships with UK connections and it is impossible for the Royal Navy to escort each one. Nevertheless, Iran knows this and by detaining one, warning others, has given the UK a massive headache. The UK is pretending to play it cool, with just the one additional warship sent to relieve another forward deployed in the region.

What does maritime law say about the right of navigation? Maritime law in this situation seems to refer directly to UNCLOS. UNCLOS is only clear in general terms regarding freedom of navigation and innocent passage. The issue here is down to the level of individual state interpretation of safety, pollution maritime laws and the rights, obligations of coastal states. To add insult, the sad joke is that the US has yet to ratify the treaty, while whining about freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, Arctic, South China Sea & the Persian Gulf.

Using commercial mariners as pawns in some warped geopolitical tussle is disingenuous and disgusting. Well I do have my biases here as someone from the industry.

The UK is aiding the US to increasingly bait Iran into further military operations. And it is working very well, judging by the recent development of ‘Operation Sentinel’ by Centcom‘.

The act by the police in Gibraltar of arresting the Indian Master, as well as the Chief Officer & 2nd officer, in addition to detaining the tanker ‘Grace 1’ has now far-reaching consequences. The crew were accused of violating EU sanctions on Syria.  The sanctions are a distinct entity to international maritime law. The US sanctions rely heavily on extraterritorial sanctions, but not the EU ones. Thus, the grounds for seizure are weak and insufficient (both the UK & Iran actions). EU Regulation 36/2012 on sanctions on Syria is referred as the basis for detaining the ‘Grace I’. There’s a a hitch in using this as a justification, since only EU oil exports from Syria to the EU are banned. Not imports from elsewhere.  But. Internationally, goods in transit can be seized and the ship can be detained if it stops in European territorial waters. The ‘Grace 1’ was reported to be in territorial waters. The UK knew that this was going to happen, hence the Gibraltar law was adopted the day before the detention.

Back to UNCLOS, this situation is aggravating given the attitude of the US in ignoring international law when it suits it to do so and conversely overplaying international law as a pretext for unilateral actions.

The ‘Stena Impero’, according to the IRGC, was arrested while traversing the Strait of Hormuz “for failing to respect international maritime rules.” It seems to relate to the use of AIS. Now this is really a shaky pretext, given all of the shenanigans going on re AIS in the region and also by Iranians in circumventing the sanctions. The can of worms has been opened, with the real danger of further incremental escalations.

Lastly, there are different shades of grey and so does international maritime law. The problem is when to draw a line re retaliation and preventing incidents from spiraling out of control.

After the UK-flagged tanker seizure, the UK proposed the creation of a EU-led mission to escort commercial ships. This plea for an EU alliance seems to present a less provocative stance towards Iran, compared to joining up with the US. Futile and empty gesture which rather distracts from the crux of the matter, the arrest & detention of the ‘Grace 1’ in the first place. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse is out.

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