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The Maersk Tigris – caught in a legal and political maelstrom

The Maersk Tigris – caught in a legal and political maelstrom
Up until a week ago it is hard to imagine that in the headquarters of Maersk Line in Copenhagen a 10-year old legal case in Iran over 10 containers shipped to Jebel Ali in 2005 was very high on the agenda. However, it certainly is now.

In a globally headline grabbing story last Tuesday Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized and detained the Maersk Tigris as it transited the Straits of Hormuz, firing warning shots across the bow of the Marshall Islands-registered containership. This did indeed get Maersk’s attention, not to mention the US Navy in the vicinity when the ship sent out a distress call, and therefore the Pentagon as well.

Confusion reigned as initially it was claimed to be a US-flagged ship, and then later turned out to be managed by Rickmers Shipmanagement in Singapore and on time charter to Maersk. In the end the only US connection to be dug up was that one of the investors in the vessel was reported by the Financial Times to be private equity group Oaktree.

Both Maersk and Rickmers appeared publically baffled as to why the ship had been detained.

A day or so later Iran’s Port and Maritime Organization (IPMO), which had sanctioned the vessel’s detention following a court ruling in March, came out and said it was a solely commercial matter between Pars Tala'eyeh Oil Products Co and Maersk Line.

If we accept that this is the case, the way in which Iran went about the detention of the Maersk Tigris deviates far from the norms of international shipping. Normally a vessel party to a dispute would be arrested when it comes into port. Now arguably Iran was not able to do this as due to international sanctions Maersk does not call in the country.

It is possible that the Maersk Tigris strayed into the Iranian waters while transiting the narrow Straits of Hormuz and the navy took the opportunity to pounce. However, a plot of the vessel’s course from suggests it was “guided” towards the 12nm limit.

It is unclear why the Maersk Tigris, which is not even owned by Maersk, was targeted for detention beyond the name on its hull. Certainly in terms of securing assets against the company it makes things rather more difficult, and both Rickmers and Maersk can justly stress that the Maersk Tigris and its crew have nothing whatsoever to do with the dispute and should immediately be released.

In all my years covering shipping the firing of warning shots across the bow of a vessel has not been standard practice in a ship arrest in commercial disputes. The fact that this happened in both a geo-politically sensitive area and at time of heightened political tensions over a possible nuclear deal, have only served to make the seizure far more just a commercial dispute to the world at large.

For what is described as a commercial dispute it seems rather strange that as of yesterday Maersk and Danish government officials had been unable to obtain any written documentation related to the court ruling or vessel detention.

Now this could all be down to Iran not being particularly well schooled in the international legal norms of shipping, or could as some believe, be a political ploy in Iran’s negotiations with the West, although what that might be is decidedly unclear. The fact that the US Navy is now escorting US and British-flagged vessels through the Straits of Hormuz would seem to do little to help Iran’s cause.

On a wider level the it also highlights the perils of doing business in and with some of the more “exotic” parts of the world and how many years later things can come back to bite not just your own company, but innocent third parties such as the crew Maersk Tigris who literally got caught in the crossfire.