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Port Report: Shipowners call for end to tension after Iranians seize another oil carrier (with video)

Three major international ocean shipping representative bodies, the International Chamber of Shipping, the Asian Shipowners’ Association and the European Community Shipowners’ Association, called for the international community to stop the escalation of tensions in the Strait of Hormuz.

They have also called for the international community to fully respect international law.

“All countries should ensure the safe passage of merchant vessels, by respecting the Freedom of Navigation enshrined in Article 87(1)a and the Right of Innocent Passage defined in Article 19 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS],” the joint statement reads.

UNCLOS is an international treaty signed by 157 nations and ratified by 168 parties. The U.S. has neither signed nor ratified the treaty. UNCLOS came into force in 1994. Article 17 of UNCLOS states that ships enjoy the right of “innocent passage” through the territorial sea (the first 13 nautical miles from the coast).

“Passage” means navigation through the territorial sea and passage is “innocent” when it is “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state” (Article 19). Article 87(1) rules that the high seas are open to all countries under the “freedom of the high seas” concept, which includes freedom of navigation.

“Freedom of navigation is vital for global trade and is a fundamental principle of international maritime law. Seafarers and ships must be allowed to operate in safety and it is simply not acceptable for them to be used as bargaining counters in any way,” said Guy Platten, ICS Secretary General.

“Merchant vessels engaged in international trade should not be subject to unlawful seizures or armed attacks. The Strait of Hormuz is an important route for European merchant vessels and we strongly urge EU member states to work with Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in order to safeguard this vital passageway,” added European Community Shipowners’ Association secretary general, Martin Dorsman.

“The Strait of Hormuz is the only route in and out of the Gulf and one of the critical shipping lanes for Asian countries that also connects Europe and Asia. We therefore urge all countries to completely secure the safe passage by respecting the freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage as enshrined in the UNCLOS, and to push for a complete de-escalation of tensions in the region,” said Ang Chin Eng, secretary general of the Asian Shipowners’ Association.

The call comes mere hours after the latest action in the Strait of Hormuz (see linked video) when the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps seized an international vessel sailing near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. The Guards said they had seized a “tanker” that was smuggling 700,000 liters (184,920 U.S. gallons) of fuel. The tanker was taken to the port at Bushehr and its cargo was handed to the National Oil Distribution Company of Bushehr province.

The seizure was revealed via the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the government-owned and directed official news agency, and the Fars News Agency – widely described as a “semi-official” news agency. It was reported by IRNA that the seized tanker had received fuel smuggled from other vessels and was heading to “neighboring” Arab countries.

The identity of the seized oil vessel is currently somewhat of a mystery. Firstly, the supplied video appears to show an offshore supply vessel rather than a “tanker.” Secondly, the nationality of the “tanker” was reported by the general media to be Iraqi. The Iraqi Ministry of Oil has denied that the seized vessel is its vessel. It added that the ship is a small vessel that is not handled by the Ministry for the purposes of marketing oil or petroleum products.

This is reported to be the third vessel seized in the area by the Iranians.

The British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Impero, was seized by the Iranians on July 19 in retaliation for an Iranian oil tanker seized by the British near Gibraltar (a small overseas territory of Britain, adjoining Spain, at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea).

Following the seizure of the Stena Impero, Commodore Rod Nairn, retired from the Australian Defence Force and now the CEO of Shipping Australia, released commentary on Iran’s actions. The Australian rank of commodore is about equivalent to a U.S. rear admiral (lower half). A commodore will have command of several ships.

“Iran’s action to seize a ship from Oman’s territorial waters using military force, has upped the ante and threatens to add risk and cost to commercial shipping in navigating the busy Straits of Hormuz… From my perspective this is a foolish move by Iran. There were a number of European nations feeling sympathetic towards Iran and tending not to enforce the USA-led sanctions. But this overtly hostile action will only strengthen their resolve against Iran and Iran will be further disadvantaged. This is a perfect example of foolish hubris and saber-rattling overriding any sense of logic or political sensibility. Unfortunately the result will be higher costs to international shipping using this important waterway,” Nairn wrote.

At least six commercial ships in the nearby Gulf of Oman have been attacked with explosives by a state actor. Four were attacked in May and two were attacked in June. Countries around the world have blamed Iran for carrying out those attacks although Iran denied responsibility.

Meanwhile, tensions continue to escalate.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Australia as part of an annual two-country security summit.

A joint statement from the two nations read, “the United States and Australia shared concerns about threats to freedom of navigation and the uninterrupted passage of maritime trade in the strategic sea-lanes in the Middle East, and noted that attacks on civilian shipping were of grave concern and a serious threat to the safety of navigation.”

Australia’s Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, confirmed that the U.S. had made a “serious and complex” request that Australia help the U.S. to protect oil shipments from Iran.

“We are deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region, and we are strongly condemning the attacks on shipping in the Gulf… we are giving this request serious consideration,” she told reporters.

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