Monday, July 22, 2019

Charities, Maritime Unions and Insurers Faced with Concern at Shipping Crisis in the Gulf of Hormuz

Iran, the UK and US See Worsening Situation as Seized Tanker Crew Detained
Shipping News Feature
IRAN – UK – The seizure of the oil tanker Stena Impero by the Iranian authorities last week unsurprisingly continues to dominate the headlines, being as it is a tangible risk to world peace. History shows us more minor incidents than this have initiated major conflicts and some have even expressed the opinion that this is aggression by proxy, the incident being spawned by the British seizure of the Grace 1 off Gibraltar, in the name of US oil sanctions.

Maritime charities and union groups are increasingly concerned as a stalemate continues, whilst insurers are re-evaluating already punitive premiums for passage through the Strait of Hormuz. The diplomatic position is quite simply horrendous with all parties seemingly entrenched. In Gibraltar the detention of the Grace1 is set to continue with the Gibraltarian Supreme Court on Friday acceding to a request from the Attorney General to detain her until a further hearing on 15 August.

The case is at the heart of the situation, although she is shown as Panamanian registered on virtually every report, it transpires she may well have lost this flag of convenience status shortly before she was seized by British Royal Marines in an operation by helicopter and fast attack boats. In March the Panamanian registry delisted 59 Iranian owned vessels after the three year old agreement between the two fell foul of the US sanctions.

Now the Swedish owned Stena Impero has become a pawn in this dangerous game and, once again we are faced with the incongruity of a foreign owned ship, crewed entirely by foreigners, being classed as ‘British’ as that is the flag she flies. One might be inclined to think that it is less likely the UK authorities will be as concerned as it would if British citizens were the captives.

The crew of the Stena Impero, all of Filipino, Indian, Russian and Latvian, origin, are reported in good health and held on board or nearby to the ships current anchorage at Ta'sisat-e-Bandari-ye-Bahonar, Bandar Abbas. The irony of any Russians being held captive by the Iranians in a dispute with Britain and the US will not be lost on any in the diplomatic community.

In the latest developments we have lies from one side or the other, the Iranians claiming they captured the ship despite the presence of the Royal Navy, the UK saying no warships were within an hour of the event whilst Iran has been reported to the UN and it is likely that Britain will push for the re-imposition of sanctions which had previously been eased. At the heart of the matter of course one might opine that it is the fear of Iran possessing nuclear warfare capability that drives the Western agenda and makes it more likely that the situation will escalate.

For their part the maritime unions have acted in tandem with Nautilus International and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) issuing a joint statement asking that the 23 crew from the Impero be released, Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson saying:

“We are shocked but not surprised by the developments in the Gulf. We have been raising our security concerns with the UK Chamber of Shipping repeatedly over recent weeks. I wrote to the Minister of Defence supporting and encouraging joint naval interventions in response to the heightening tensions in the Gulf. We call on the UK government to urgently engage in diplomatic efforts for the release of the vessel and crew.”

ITF Seafarers’ Section chair David Heindel echoed the sentiments and said it was essential that the maritime industry and governments work collectively to guarantee safe passage and defuse conflict in such a vital region and ensure future safe passage, and freedom of navigation in international waters throughout the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman.

The global seafarers’ charity, Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea), says the impact of the reports of another tanker ‘seizure’ will pile stress and anxiety on all seafarers navigating the region. The situation echoing the long running piracy crisis off the Somali coast. John Green, Director of Development for the charity said:

“One minute the crew on board were going about their professional duties and the next they will be undergoing huge pressure, not knowing what will happen next, one can only think of their wives and children at home and the worry they will be facing.”

One other factor which cargo and vessel owners are concerned about will be the increased costs always associated with such events. Fuel prices are likely to be affected, this at a time when marine fuel is under pressure with demands for cleaner, dearer fuel in the light of the incoming sulphur cap. As for insurance the outlook is gloomy with Simon Lole of insurance specialists, Peter Lole, saying:

”The increasing hostility is giving great concern to all in the industry, underwriters will be scrutinising every case individually as these tensions rise and doubtless escalating premiums will be the result. There is a historical precedent set at the time of the invasion of Iraq by the US, UK, Australia and Poland when we saw the imposition of War Risk cover and hull risk insurance costs rise.”

Now the world holds its breath as all factions consider their next move, unfortunately with more sanctions looming it seems likely that, even if the current complications are somehow resolved, the effect on shipping in the region is likely to be long lasting.

Photo: Iranian Revolutionary Guards prepare the assault on the Stena Impero from a helicopter hovering over the deck. (Courtesy Fars News Agency).