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Shipping is a target again just for doing its job

Spate of state-sponsored seizures has once again left shipping and seafarers caught in the crossfire of geopolitics

When 53 seafarers can be taken hostage in the space of a week and it barely causes a ripple in the international news, it is time for the shipping industry to address why it all too often seen as an ‘easy’ target

SHIPPING folk are frequently heard to complain that their industry is an “easy target”.

Too often this is a coded petition for regulatory exemption, but lately ships have been coming under attack in ways that range from the arguably ridiculous to the truly alarming.

In the context of Ukraine’s heroic struggle to defend itself against Russia, several tanker owners — predominantly Greek tanker owners — are chagrined to find themselves denounced by Kyiv as “international sponsors of war”, a list that for good measure also includes the Liberian registry.

Sentient creatures should be able to register that the Ukrainians, locked in a life-or-death struggle not of their own making, are doing very well to squeeze whatever pressure points they can if it may contribute to draining the enemy’s ability to wage war. Less edifying, though, is that plenty of — predominantly Western — media seem happy to pile on, too.

This is to blithely disregard that the shipping companies in question are fully complying with sanctions and that keeping Russian oil flowing, while probably not Ukraine’s preferred scenario, is what is wanted by most of the world, at least for the time being and under certain circumstances. That goes for blocs leading the support for Ukraine such as the G7 nations and the European Union.

To paint the tankers as “bad” is not only what literature students understand as a pathetic fallacy, but also to wilfully blind oneself to the economic and political context ships are working in. There is ‘bad’ shipping, as embodied by the so-called “dark” fleet circumventing sanctions and trampling on other standards. But that is a separate matter.

Tankers and their crews are running real-world risks in plying their trade in the Middle East Gulf. Over the past week or so, Iran has seized two Western-owned or Western-chartered tankers in or close to the gulf.

The incidents seem to belong to an Iranian policy of seizing or attacking tankers in or near the Strait of Hormuz since 2019.

In July that year, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps grabbed the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero (IMO: 9797400) and held vessel and crew until that September.

Initially, Iran claimed that the tanker had hit a fishing vessel and was detained for violating navigational rules, but it soon became clear this was retaliation for the UK’s prior seizure of a tanker alleged to be carrying Iranian oil for Syria.

There were other seizures and attacks on tankers in the region, but the most brazen subsequent case was last year’s hijacking of two laden Greece-flagged suezmaxes in supposed retribution for a move by the US to confiscate an Iranian cargo off an aframax detained in Greece. The two vessels and dozens of seafarers were held under armed guard in Bandar Abbas for months until a politically awkward exchange of hostage tankers was eventually arranged.

With an alleged Iranian oil cargo aboard the Greece-controlled suezmax Suez Rajan (IMO: 9524475) currently on an apparent course towards Houston, pursuant to a US court’s confiscation order, Iranian forces have seized a Chevron-chartered, Turkish-operated suezmax.

Within a matter of days, a Greece-controlled, Panama-flagged very large crude carrier, fresh out of dry dock in Dubai, was “swarmed” by about a dozen Iranian patrol boats and forced to divert to Bandar Abbas, bringing the number of seafarers held in the two incidents to 53.

While the initial temptation was to see the two seizures as part of what is by now a familiar Iranian playbook, there were some troubling inconsistencies in the targeting of the VLCC Niovi (IMO: 9292498), not least the fact that the vessel is unladen. Subsequently there has been speculation that the second seizure was not part of a tit-for-tat retaliation for the move to confiscate the Suez Rajan cargo.

A US-based Iran pressure group has claimed there are “strong” grounds for suspecting that the Niovi case relates to claims swirling around a prior oil cargo that are partly being played out through the courts. If that proves to be the case, it may warrant casting the incident in a slightly different light, however it would not necessarily make Iran’s action any less unlawful.

There is no doubt that Iran’s tactics in seizing tankers passing through the Middle East Gulf have so far been “successful” and that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been emboldened by this and by the virtual silence last year when the seizure of the Greek tankers ought to have triggered international outrage.

In truth, options to curtail such violations of international law and to protect the innocent and lawful passage of ships in the region appear limited.

Tensions will surely ratchet up if actions of this nature persist. In past hostage-takings, a solution — no matter how politically unpalatable for some of the parties — could be discerned at least in broad outline from the outset. An additionally worrying feature of the latest tanker crisis is that no such endgame is immediately obvious.

Unfortunately, shipowners, ships and crews make easy targets.

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