Maersk Shipping-related businesses could be at risk while operating in the Persian Gulf, a maritime analyst has warned.
His warning comes as the United States has sent navy ships to escort US-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.
Box ship Maersk Tigris was arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while transiting the Strait of Hormuz on 28 April. However, Maersk says no official documents that would normally accompany the arrest of a ship have been issued, and the ship does not belong to the group, which had it on timecharter. Maersk has confirmed that Iran’s port authority claims the arrest is due to an ongoing legal dispute – a commercial case – between Maersk and an Iranian company.
Speaking to IHS Maritime, Hans Tino Hansen, CEO and founder of maritime risk assessment company Risk Intelligence, said that the event obscured certainty about what to expect in the region in the future, and could point to internal clashes within Iran.
Weighing up the first scenario – that the arrest occurred because of the court case, Hansen said: “If we believe [the arrest was a result of] the civilian court case, then the problem is quite big, because you have a situation where any company or any vessel that is connected directly or indirectly to a court case or potential court case or commercial dispute in Iran could face arrest in the Persian Gulf. That could be the conclusion and that has potential for a lot of problems.”
IHS Maritime obtained a comment from a representative of Iran’s foreign ministry, who confirmed, “Taking the ship into custody was based on an earlier court ruling and was a demand by the private (non-state) plaintiff.” However, she did not disclose any further information on this court order, or who the plaintiff is.
The other assumption that analysts will feel free to draw, said Hansen, is that the arrest is “a smokescreen” created by one of two factions in Iran – hardliners, who do not believe in international negotiation.
The Revolutionary Guard (also known as the Army of the Guards of the Islamic Revolution) is generally considered to be the army of the hardliners, said Hansen. It is not the national navy or coastguard. It is a separate entity, established in 1979 to protect the country’s Islamic system. The guard reports to a different structure to the army or navy – directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Hansen said the industry should ask why the ship arrest was carried out by the Revolutionary Guard and not by the navy or coastguard.
“If [the arrest was not actually carried out on the basis of a commercial claim], then it might be a smokescreen – the result of a game between hardliners and those, in Iran, who want negotiations with the international community,” said Hansen.
To create an international incident by arresting Maersk Tigris could have effectively stopped negotiations. “If the Americans had sent in a destroyer and something had happened – that would be the end of the negotiations,” he said, adding that a civil lawsuit gave the hardliners a “loophole” – a way out of the situation.
This would also explain the first aborted aggressive approach from the Revolutionary Guard on Maersk Kensington on 24 April – a ship that is owned by Maersk and is flagged by the US.
“It is a US-flagged ship, and that is most likely why they did not take it, because they did not want to cross that red line,” he said.
He urged ship operators to be cautious in the area. Maersk Tigris, as well as not being a Maersk ship, is also not painted in the Maersk livery but in the colours of Rickmers Shipmanagement.
“So, I would be careful – if it is correct, that the arrest was due to a commercial claim, then you actually don’t know what is going to be the rule going forward,” said Hansen.
The question of whether the ship was in international waters is key.
Iran’s maritime regulation, the 1993 Law of Marine Areas of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea, recognises innocent passage through territorial waters, but also that this will be suspended and ships be diverted or arrested under certain conditions, including issues that have no “direct bearing on the passage” of the ship.
IHS analysis of the ship’s movements reveals several gradual turns, off its original course and into Iranian waters, and then deeper into Iranian waters. IHS principal analyst Richard Hurley said the speed during the turns taken by the ship were constant (13 kt), suggesting they were routine changes of course to avoid a vessel collision. This, said Hurley, could suggest that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had blocked Tigris and were forcing the ship into Iranian waters. The ship then reduced its speed to 6.5 kt, suggesting the vessel had been seized, said Hurley.