Maersk has said it believes the actions of Iran in arresting the container ship Maersk Tigris in the Strait of Hormuz on 28 April is “illegal” .
Speaking to IHS Maritime today, Maersk representative Michael Christian Storgaard said it was “illegal from a UN point of view to seize a commercial vessel” while in international waters or while making innocent passage through a country’s territorial waters.
“We have not seen any arrest orders and we don’t have any written official documents, a court ruling, or an arrest order,” he said, stating that this would be “the norm”.
“When someone seizes something, you are told the reason. You are presented with some court ruling or an arrest order or an official document,” he said.
Maersk said in a public statement today that it could only “presume” the ship was arrested on the incorrect assumption that the ship belonged to Maersk, because of an ongoing court case between Maersk Line and an Iranian company.
“This is what Iran is saying and so we have to accept that. But we have not received any written or formal confirmation that the seizure and the cargo case are connected,” said Storgaard.
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In addition to the failure of the normal protocol for ship arrest, the country has seized property and people that do not belong to Maersk. Neither the arrested ship, nor its crew, nor its cargo, belong to Maersk – the ship is owned by Wide Golf Ltd, registered in Luxembourg; it is managed by Singapore-based Rickmers Shipmanagement. But the ship is chartered by Maersk Line and Maersk owns the ship’s containers.
The actions of Iran’s navy patrol seems to contradict the country’s policy on international navigation. Foreign minister Javad Zarif addressed an audience in New York on 29 April and was quoted by Reuters as referring to the Persian Gulf as the country’s “lifeline” and as saying that Iran “will respect international navigation” and that for Iran “freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf is a must”.
In its statement Maersk outlines the legal dispute that stems from January 2005 and that is ongoing to the extent that only today the company learnt that Iran’s appeal court had made a new ruling on the case.
The 10-year-old court case involves a shipment to Dubai of 10 containers. Maersk says that the containers were never collected by the consignee or any other party and that “after 90 days and in accordance with UAE law, the cargo was disposed of by UAE authorities”.
The Maersk statement goes on to explain that the Iranian company accused Maersk Line of default and claimed USD4 million as the cost of the lost cargo. Maersk made a successful challenge and the case was dismissed in 2007.
Subsequently, the Iranian company attempted, twice, to try the case in other courts.
Most recently, it initiated civil proceedings at the Tehran Public Civil Court, and it is this latest attempt that could be the cause of recent aggression against two Maersk-named ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
Maersk claims that on 18 February 2015, it was ordered by the appeal court of Tehran to pay the Iranian company USD163,000. Maersk says it accepted the ruling. However, the Iranian company again appealed, seeking higher compensation, namely, the amount of today’s cargo value.
Maersk said: “Only today, 30 April, have we learnt that the appeal court has ruled Maersk Line to pay USD3.6 million. As we do not have the details of the ruling, we are not able to comment hereon, nor at this point speculate on our options.”
Storgaard told IHS Maritime that even if the court case was ongoing and technically “Maersk owes Iran money”, the actions taken by Iran had not been “proportional”.
Arresting a vessel at a port under the correct procedures is one thing, but to seize a vessel making innocent passage and without having issued explanatory communication or documentation is quite another, said Storgaard.
The actions of Iran appear to reveal a level of chaos. On the 24 April, the US Navy issued an advisory warning after another Maersk ship, Maersk Kensington, was chased by four Revolutionary Guard navy vessels in the same area. Iran then appeared to draw in the 5,400 teu Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris on 28 April, whereupon it arrested the vessel.
IHS analysis of the ships’ movements suggest Kensington was not a sufficiently easy catch, since it was outbound and therefore on the south side of the waterway, further from Iran’s waters; whereas Tigris was inbound and closer to Iran’s shores.
Tigris’s movements reveal several gradual turns, off its course and deeper into Iranian waters. The speed during the turns was constant, suggesting that they were routine changes of course to avoid a vessel collision. IHS principal analyst Richard Hurley said this suggested that Iran’s navy had blocked Tigris and were forcing it deeper into Iranian waters. The ship then reduced its speed from 13 kt to 6.5 kt, suggesting the vessel had been seized, said Hurley.
Maersk confirmed that the detained crew of the box ship, which AIS Data shows remains at Bandar Abbas port, are “safe and in good spirits”. But it demanded that both crew and ship be “released as soon as possible”.
The company says it is currently speaking with the relevant Iranian authorities and the Danish ministry of foreign affairs, which is believed by Maersk to have deployed personnel in the Danish Embassy in Tehran.
Storgaard also confirmed to IHS Maritime that Maersk would continue its transits in the Strait of Hormuz and would not be amending its risk assessment due to this latest incident.