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Thomas Owen

MariTrace Assessment of the threat to commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf

The attempted interception of a BP tanker is indicative of the threat in the region and representative of a deteriorating operating environment following breakdown of ‘Iran-deal’; As Iran attempts to pressure the international community into sanctions relief, further hostile harassment of vessels is likely; Vessel operators should undertake risk assessments, increase watches, and beware of suspicious approaches. Armed guards are not recommended.

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Thomas Owen
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On Wednesday, 10 July, the passage of British Heritage, a UK-flagged Suezmax tanker, was impeded by three Iranian craft as she was underway towards the Straits of Hormuz. The craft attempted to divert the BP-owned tanker towards Iran until HMS Montrose positioned herself between the vessels, forcing the Iranian craft to flee the area.

The incident was the latest maritime manifestation in a deteriorating operating environment. In May four vessels, including a Norwegian-owned tanker, were sabotaged while anchored off Fujairah, and in June Norwegian and Japanese vessels were attacked underway in the Gulf of Oman. The incidents were well-planned and believed to have been deliberately calculated to cause hull damage without sinking the vessels. Iran, or at least Iranian proxies, is highly likely responsible.

The Iran Deal and the Wider Context

Aggressive harassment of vessels in the area is not unusual, but sabotage and attacks underway represent a significant deterioration. The incidents are likely Tehran’s method of exerting pressure on the US and international community in response to the US withdrawal from the ‘Iran-deal’. Since the withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions, Iran’s economy has tanked. In an attempt to drive a wedge between the US and the EU, Iran has breached parts of the deal, and is using its influence on the Straits of Hormuz – a sea lane critical to the world economy – to disrupt shipping.

British-flagged ships are at particular risk from Iranian aggression. At the beginning of the month, British Royal Marines intercepted the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar. The vessel was alleged to be carrying oil from Iran for sale into Syria and thus in breach of sanctions. Iranian commanders have threatened retaliation on UK ships until the tanker is released.

Response and Outlook

The response to the threat has so far largely been procedural in nature. The UK has raised the ISPS Level to Level 3 for vessels entering Iranian waters, implying an exceptional threat. The Joint War Committee has also included the Persian Gulf in its Listed Area, allowing insurers to charge more. The international community has mooted the possibility of naval convoys to escort vulnerable ships and ensure freedom of navigation, while the UK is reported to be dispatching an additional frigate to the area.

Both Iran and the US are keen to avoid a wider conflict; President Trump aborted an attack on targets inside Iran for fear of escalation. However, at the same time neither side look ready for dialogue nor is there a clear face-saving way out of the crisis. The biggest risk to shipping is that full-scale conflict is inadvertently sparked through an accident or a miscalculated action. The prospect of this is compounded by increased military personnel deployments and elevated operational readiness.

“Until a normalisation of relations, vessel operators can expect increased insurance premiums, harassment of vessels, disruption to shipping routes, and transit delays.”

In the worst case there is potential for hull damage through sea mines or even anti-ship missiles. In a widening of the conflict, Iran could use proxies in the Southern Red Sea to target shipping.

Actions to Take

Before transiting the area, vessel operators should review company procedures and relevant bulletins and undertake voyage specific risk assessments, as per BMP5. Fire-fighting equipment should be available and operational. Watches should be increased through the most vulnerable parts of the passage, with attention paid to suspicious approaches, divers and small craft. The hull should be checked for attachments. The use of private armed guards, commonplace through the Gulf of Aden, is discouraged, but an unarmed maritime security team may provide additional resources for watch-keeping.

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