Iran’s violent arrest of a Maersk ship making innocent passage through Iranian territorial waters en route to Jebel Ali in the UAE, has been compared to a hostage taking situation.
US maritime litigation lawyer Bruce Paulsen, a specialist in Iranian sanctions and Somalia piracy, told IHS Maritime: “Unless there is some commercial reason for this [incident], it is akin to a hostage taking situation.”
He said: “The Maersk Tigris to my knowledge is on a liner service that regularly goes through that space from Jeddah to the UAE. These ships have a right of innocent passage through the Straits of Hormuz. This is just a ship on a regular route, doing its regular passage to which it has a right. The fact that the ship has been interdicted is quite astounding. It is an international incident, interfering with international shipping.”
Media reports from Iran had claimed that the ship was seized on request of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization, suggesting that Maersk had payments owed. But Maersk is still waiting to confirm this information.
Maersk spokesman Michael Christian Storgaard told IHS Maritime: “We are still not able to confirm the reason behind the Iranian authorities’ seizure – in international waters – of Maersk Tigris.
“We have been in contact with the Iranian authorities – the Ports & Maritime Organization. They informed us that the seizure of Maersk Tigris is related to an allegedly unresolved cargo claim. We have however not received any written notification or similar pertaining to the claim or the seizure of the vessel. We are therefore not able to confirm whether or not this is the actual reason behind the seizure. We will continue our efforts to obtain more information.”
A maritime litigation partner at law firm Seward & Kissel, Paulsen has been involved in approximately 40 piracies throughout his career, including a 2009 ransom negotiation with Somali pirates that freed 28 kidnapped crew members of the oil tanker MV Biscaglia in exchange for more than USD1 million in ransom money.
Paulsen said the incident is reminiscent of piracy and will raise a similar concern for the welfare of the ship’s captain and crew.
He said: “A ship gets fired upon and pulled in. Nobody wants to die, so the company’s first concern will be their captain and crew. They will want to contact the authorities to ensure the safety of the crew who have, in effect, been taken hostage.”
The ship is currently still anchored off the port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf.
Iran arrested the 5,400 teu Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris yesterday, after it was approached by several Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Navy patrol vessels.
US authorities had confirmed that the incident occurred in Iranian territorial waters, but that after the box ship’s master declined Iran’s request to move further into Iranian waters, one of the patrol vessels fired shots across the ship’s bridge.
“The master complied with the Iranian demand and proceeded into Iranian waters in the vicinity of Larak Island,” said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.
Ship tracking data analysed by IHS Maritime shows the ship navigating safely in international waters until something made it alter course to starboard – a move that was repeated thrice, eventually taking the ship into Iranian territorial waters.
In the first instance, the course alteration took place at a constant speed of 13.2 kt. The alteration and constant speed all suggested a routine change of course “according to the rules of the road to avoid a close contact situation with another vessel”, said IHS principal analyst Richard Hurley.
On the second detour to starboard, the ship’s speed again stayed constant at 13.2 kt “which might suggest the alteration was considered routine”.
A third change then occurred, where the ship’s speed reduced to 6.5 kt, and it was this change that “would suggest the vessel had been seized”, Hurley said.
After regaining speed to 7 kt, the ship then moved off at 13 kt, to anchor at Bandar Abbas anchorage.
Last Friday, the US Navy issued an advisory warning after another Maersk ship, the Maersk Kensington, was chased by four Revolutionary Guards’ Navy vessels in the same area.
Hurley said that the difference was that the Kensington was outbound and therefore on the south side of the waterway further from Iran’s waters and thus would have been harder to surround and pull in.
While the owners, operators, and flags of the two vessels are different, both vessels have close US affiliation (the Maersk Kensington is US-flagged, the Maersk Tigris is flagged by the Marshall Islands) and both are Maersk ships, suggesting a commercial incentive behind Iran’s actions.