Tanker Seizures & Resurgent Imperialism

Arresting an Iranian ship and then threatening war when Iran commits precisely the same illegal act is the height of hypocrisy by the U.K., writes Craig Murray.

By Craig Murray

The British seizure of the Iranian tanker off Gibraltar was illegal. There is no doubt of that whatsoever. The Iranian response to the seizure of its tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar, by the seizure of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, was also illegal, though more understandable as a reaction. The implications for the global economy of the collapse of the crucial international law on passage through straits would be devastating.

It may seem improbable that the U.K. and or France would ever seek to close the Dover Strait, but in the current crazed climate it is no longer quite impossible to imagine the U.K. seeking to mess up access to Rotterdam and Hamburg. It is still easier to imagine them seeking to close the Dover Strait against the Russian Navy. Yet the essential freedom of navigation through the Kerch Strait, respected by Russia which controls it, is necessary to the survival of Ukraine as a country. For Turkey to close the Bosphorus would be catastrophic and is a historically recurring possibility. Malaysia and Indonesia would cause severe dislocation to Australia and China by disrupting the Strait of Malacca and the Suharto government certainly viewed that as an advantage from which it should have the right to seek to benefit, and was a continued nuisance in UN Law of the Sea discussions. These are just a few examples. The U.S. Navy frequently sails through the Taiwan Strait to assert the right of passage though straits. 

Seized Iranian supertanker. (YouTube)

Keeping the Strait of Hormuz open is perhaps the most crucial of all to the world economy, but I hope that the above examples are sufficient to convince you that the right of passage through straits, irrespective of territorial waters, is an absolutely essential pillar of international maritime law and international order. The Strait of Gibraltar is vital and Britain has absolutely no right to close it to Iran or Syria. If the obligation on coastal states to keep maritime straits open were lost, it would lead to economic dislocation and even armed conflict worldwide.

Law of the Sea 

Part III of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea relates entirely to passage through straits.

Please note that the right of passage through straits is here absolute, in a UN convention which is one of the base blocks of international law. It does not state that the right to transit through straits can be subject to any sanctions regime which the coastal state chooses to impose. It is clearly worded to preclude such coastal state activity. Nor can it be overridden by any regional grouping of which the coastal state is a member.

The statement to parliament by Jeremy Hunt that the Iranian tanker had “freely navigated into U.K. territorial waters” was irrelevant in law and he must have known that. The whole point of passage through straits is that it is by definition through territorial waters, but the coastal state is not permitted to interfere with navigation.

It is therefore irrelevant whether, as claimed by the U.K. and its puppets in Gibraltar, the tanker was intending to breach EU sanctions by delivering oil to Syria. There is a very strong argument that the EU sanctions are being willfully misinterpreted by the U.K., but ultimately that makes no difference. 

Map of Strait of Dover. (Norman Einstein, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Even if the EU does have sanctions seeking to preclude an Iranian ship from delivering Venezuelan oil to Syria, the EU or its member states have absolutely no right to impede the passage of an Iranian ship through the Strait of Gibraltar in enforcement of those sanctions. Anymore than Iran could declare sanctions against Saudi oil being delivered to Europe and close the Straits of Hormuz to such shipping, or Indonesia could declare sanctions on EU goods going to Australia and close the Malacca Strait, or Russia could declare sanctions on goods going to Ukraine and close the Strait of Kerch.

There are two circumstances in which the U.K. could intercept the Iranian ship in the Strait of Gibraltar legally. One would be in pursuance of a resolution by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. There is no such resolution in force. The second would be in the case of a war between the U.K. and Iran or Syria. No such state of war exists (and even then, a naval blockade must be limited by the humanitarian measures of the San Remo Convention).

Video released by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shows Iranian troops taking over British-flagged tanker from helicopter. (YouTube)

Old Fashioned Imperialism

What we are seeing from the U.K. is old fashioned Imperialism. The notion that Imperial powers can do what they want, and enforce their “sanctions” against Iran, Syria and Venezuela in defiance of international law, because they, the West, are a superior order of human being. 

The hypocrisy of arresting the Iranian ship and then threatening war when Iran commits precisely the same illegal act in retaliation is absolutely sickening.

Finally, there will no doubt be the usual paid government trolls on social media linking to this article with claims that I am mad, a “conspiracy theorist,” alcoholic or pervert. It is therefore worth pointing out the following.

I was for three years the head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I was alternate head of the U.K. Delegation to the UN Preparatory Commission on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. I both negotiated, and drafted parts of, the Protocol that enabled the Convention to come into force. I was the head of the FCO Section of the Embargo Surveillance Centre and responsible for giving real time political and legal clearance, 24 hours a day, for naval boarding operations in the Gulf to enforce a UN mandated embargo. There are very few people alive who combine both my practical experience and theoretical knowledge of precisely the subject here discussed.

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010.

This article is from CraigMurray.org.uk.

Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment Policy. Allegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive language toward other commenters or our writers will be removed.

22 comments for “Tanker Seizures & Resurgent Imperialism

  1. Tim Slater
    August 2, 2019 at 05:42

    Can you please block the spammer “Junaid”?

  2. Anonymous
    August 1, 2019 at 19:13

    Junaid’s comment is obviously not related to this article at all. How was it approved?

  3. ComAnd
    August 1, 2019 at 13:46

    One major point that is being grossly ignored by commentators is that Iran has the right and responsibility, under International Law, UN resolution, to provide security and defence to the Strait of Hormuz ensuring safe passage.

    Mr.Murray, Iran’s actions were/are not illegal, as it is the only actor whose role and responsibility as laid out by international law is to protect the strait. Iran is only sticking to its role in protecting the interests of the region. This cannot be ignored and must be reinforced in the media.

  4. Howdie Doodee
    July 31, 2019 at 21:47

    Thanks Craig Murray.

    A couple things I’m also curious about are, even if for the sake of argument the UK had the right to enforce EU sanctions here–exactly what mechanism are they claiming to do this? If it’s a violation to deliver oil to Syria–well, the oil wasn’t delivered yet. Second, what’s the punishment, is it described in the sanctions, and if so is it seizure of the supposed offender? Or the they-think-will-offend soon?

    And another really serious part of this is that the UK illegally seized and is holding actual human beings. This isn’t just a property dispute. Do the sanctions give the UK/EU the right to arrest and hold and try individuals (none of whom I assume are specifically targeted as they’re just random sea people)? What crime, what court?


  5. dean 1000
    July 31, 2019 at 13:17

    Thanks Joe Lauria for giving people of every opinion a place to speak their minds, and for informed opinion to write.

    Thanks Mr. Murray for telling it like it is, and for the link to the UN Law of the Sea Convention. I’m not going to read the entire 202 pages. There is a good index. Part III ( on Straits) is only 5 pages w/very wide margins.

    There is reportedly evidence (I haven’t seen it) that the dangerous fracas between the UK and Iran is the handiwork of the infamous John Bolton. Hopefully the countries that threatened to put George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on trial if they appeared within their borders will extend that courtesy to John- the wily coyote -Bolton.
    The Strait of Gibraltar? The pillars of Hercules wouldn’t be much more inaccurate. How about the Strait of the Mediterranean Sea?

    Since the Cuban Missile Crisis the imperialism of Washington’s warmongers has usually backfired. That crisis was caused by Washington’s aggressive move installing Jupiter missiles in Turkey that threatened Russia. The Soviet Union’s response was putting Missiles in Cuba.
    The Current Crisis with Iran results from Washington Installing interceptor missiles in Redzikowo, Poland to supposedly counter Iranian missiles launched on Europe.
    The NATO countries can put more ordnance on any country in the Mid-East by converting old passenger jets and fighter bombers into drones than any Mid-east country can put on Europe with missiles. And do so without the slightest help from Washington. The Iran nuclear deal obviated the make-believe rationale for the interceptor missiles that were really aimed at Russia’s retaliatory capability. The warmongers, foreign and domestic, got Trump to nix the Iran Deal. The warmongers have learned nothing and forgotten everything. Here we go again. The world threatened by another crisis manufactured by Washington’s imperialists.

    • Macon Richardson
      July 31, 2019 at 16:08

      I gather you somehow associate the word Gibraltar with the English. In fact, in 711 CE, the Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad led the initial incursion into Iberia in advance of the main Moorish force under the command of Musa ibn Nusayr, Umayyad governor of Ifriqiya. Gibraltar was named after Tariq. Gibral = Mountain, Gibraltar = Taurik’s Mountain.

  6. Michael McNulty
    July 31, 2019 at 13:02

    Like somebody said, isn’t it strange how Britain detains a tanker while Iran seizes one?

  7. Captain Colin Smith, M.Sc.
    July 31, 2019 at 12:49

    Further to the above…it seems the tanker, too big for Suez, called into Gibraltar to receive stores, and perhaps effect a crew change. This is a very common activity, carried out by many VLCC’s. Had the Iranians any inkling that the ship they own was to be boarded and illegally detained, they would I’m sure have chosen to keep to the south side of the Straits, and pass through Moroccan territorial waters instead, ignoring the Traffic Separation scheme. Tankers on passage are very often redirected to a different discharge port if the cargo is sold in transit. Very often it’s Master does not learn the discharge port until late in the voyage, for example, LEFO (Lands End for Orders) is a common assignment. If the Iranians had been a little more cautious in their operation of the ship, they may have been able to avoid being exposed to what amounts to piracy.

    • Macon Richardson
      July 31, 2019 at 16:11

      “If the Iranians had been a little more cautious in their operation of the ship, they may have been able to avoid being exposed to what amounts to piracy.”

      One never expects the Spanish Inquisition! Er, the English Inquisition….

    • Captain Colin Smith,.M.Sc.,
      August 1, 2019 at 01:48

      Since the U.K. had no right to board and detain the vessel, under normal circumstances the Iranian owners would have been entitled to expect the ship to transact it’s business and move on. The EU sanctions were agreed amongst EU member states, barring EU states from buying or selling oil to/from Syria, using EU “bottoms”. The “Grace 1” had a right of innocent passage enjoyed by any other Panamanian ship. Since there are stratagems available to avoid being illegally boarded, l’m sure that in future the Iranian owners will take advantage of them. In addition to the above evasion it can sell the 300,000 ton cargo, in total or in part, several times during the voyage, and buy it back in the Eastern Mediterranean, lie about it’s discharge port, keeping even it’s Master in the dark, and favouring the North African Coast. The world is full of anonymous brass plate companies that can be exploited to hide ship, cargo, and discharge ports. In the days of apartheid countless VLCCs loaded in the PG for Europe, but somehow turned up sanctions-busting in Capetown or Durban. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  8. Captain Colin Smith, M.Sc
    July 31, 2019 at 12:28

    It is the height of hypocrisy to describe the tanker off Gibraltar as “Iranian”, but then describe the tanker off Hormuz as “British”. The former is in fact, or rather was, Panamanian, but beneficially owned by an Iranian company. The Panamanian registry is of course a flag of convenience. Panama is in it for the tonnage money, has no interest in defending it’s “territory”, and quickly deregistered it. By contrast the only thing “British” about the Stena tanker is it’s flag. It’s owners reside in Sweden. It’s crew is international. Brits will be disappointed to learn that the mighty Red Duster has been a flag of convenience for decades, only in this case a ‘flag of financial convenience’ offering a cash-rich owner 100% free depreciation in the first year of his ship-acquisition loan. What he does get, though, is a ready-made naval fleet willing to leap to protect his ship. In no other respect, especially crew nationality, can she be said to be British. Both have the right of innocent passage enshrined in UNCLOS. Britain struck first, acting on orders from the US. Iran replied in equal terms, targeting a U.K.-flagged ship. This silly game has to end. The U.K. should have the spine to resist being ordered to carry out a modern form of piracy by rampant American neo-conservatives.

  9. Sam F
    July 31, 2019 at 12:04

    Thank you, Craig Murray, for this exposition. Glad to have an article with your credentials.
    There are few examples of more obvious national hypocrisy apart from US foreign policy.
    Perhaps UK will now pardon the Bounty mutineers and pirates past.
    It might be interesting to review a history of recent piracy prosecutions by UK.
    Surely the ICC provides remedies for such acts.

  10. Eddie S
    July 30, 2019 at 21:55

    Interesting backgrounder on the accepted international laws regarding passage through straits by a knowledgeable, progressive source which gives a LOT more balance than the MSM was doing —- most of their reports didn’t even mention the British seizure of the Iranian vessel in the Straits of Gibraltar —- it was just ‘those terrorist Iranians are wantonly attacking ships!’ kind of reporting, like they do for any ‘official enemy’ of the US imperialistic intentions.

  11. KiwiAntz
    July 30, 2019 at 17:16

    Great article! You highlight the glaringly obvious fact that the UK is a hasbeen Nation, desperately trying to be relevant & hoping to relive its former glory days as a former Imperial Empire that ruled the Waves, the Sun never set on Brittanica as the saying went? Well the Sun did set on this UK Empire when Egypt grabbed the Suez Canal & Iran turfed out the British Petroleum Company & nationalised its Oil! The UK’s current, humiliating status is that of a whipped dog & vassal to the latest Imperial Hegemon, America? It’s tinpot Nation status as a lapdog of US foreign policy was verified when the US ordered the UK to illegally seize the Iranian tanker in International waters off Gibraltar & when Iran responded in kind in the Straits of Homuz by seizing a UK ship, the howls of hypocrisy coming out of London was deafening! The UK didn’t have a leg to stand on & they knew it when the Iranians responded in kind & Iran were entitled to grab a UK ship in a “quid pro quo” move as it was the UK who broke freedom of navigation laws first & with that illegal move has set a dangerous precedent for shipping lane restrictions in other areas of contention? Here’s a simple solution, stupid UK? You release the Iranian ship & let it proceed to wherever it is scheduled to go too & the Iranian’s will set your Tanker free? Simple as that! Crisis averted? But you might have to check with your Master, the American Empire first!

  12. ranney
    July 30, 2019 at 16:46

    Hi Consortium thanks for publishing this. I read Murrays blog regularly and thought this was splendid, especially considering his expertise as outlined in the last paragraph. Murray is a splendid straight talking utterly sensible British liberal and I am always pleased to see his comments spread around so more people can read them – but obviously not enough do – especially those in this country.

    I would like to ask CN what is going on with the administration of this site? First I note that comments are not being posted – mine included. It is becoming increasingly iffy if ones comment will be posted. I have never written anything that uses words or ideas that would be deleted, yet I’m wondering if this comment will be posted or not.. Also I note that the ability to contact CN is now gone. I used to occasionally write the editor (Robert Parry) to ask a question or something and I always got a response. Now there is no way posted to contact the editor, so I am using this venue to do it. Why has CN suddenly become unavailable to it’s readers who have comments or questions that do not necessarily pertain to the article at hand? Please give us back the the old CN which was reliable in posting comments and also gave us a way to contact the editors!

  13. Michael
    July 30, 2019 at 16:36

    Dear Craig Murray, when you state that the seizure was illegal, can you cite such law by UN or by any international body? If there is such law, did any such body came forth to sue? If there are international laws then they are toothless, and the body legislating such law is then useless.

    • AnneR
      July 31, 2019 at 11:31

      I do believe that if you click on the hyperlinks you will be able to read the specific laws regarding navigation rights through straits.

  14. jas
    July 30, 2019 at 14:53

    Interesting article, however true IMPERIALIST’s dont negotiate. Britain has found itself in a pickle and wants to negotiate an exchange.

    IMPERIAL – Laughable hahahahahahah

  15. July 30, 2019 at 14:51

    Rob Slane at the Blogmire has an amusing related post up.

    Researchers Find That Nicking Ships May Have Consequences

  16. John Neal Spangler
    July 30, 2019 at 14:22

    May was despicable in many ways. It is good, she is gone, tho she should be tried as a War Criminal.

  17. Lily
    July 30, 2019 at 14:20

    Thank you, Craig Murray for this excellent article!

    It is unbelievable that the UK dares to go so far. Skripal and MH17 were already extremely dumb and rude. There treatment if Julien Assange is revolting. This a big step further and might well lead to WWIII.

    How arrogant they are!

    I have always been wondering how it is possible that these things happen in the same country: making the best films, best theatrical performances, best comedy and incredibly beautiful ballets like the Bourne production of Swan Lake with dancer Adam Cooper and at the same time behaving worse than the Mafia.

  18. Jeff Harrison
    July 30, 2019 at 14:08

    Yes, Mr. Murray. Why stop with Britain? Britain did this at the direction of their masters in Washington. Bolsonaro won’t allow an Iranian freighter loaded with food stuffs to be refueled off Brazil because Washington told him not to. The West, by which I mean the regime in Washington and their vassal states can just do whatever they want. If the UN had the balls to do something about British piracy on the high seas, Iran would not have had to hijack the British ship. Iran (and some other states) are having to defend themselves against the depredations of rogue nations like the US and our vassals in Europe.

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