Iran, or more importantly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has embarked on a tactic that will lead to a continuing disruption of the tanker trade that is difficult to counter
The diversion of Stena Impero to Iran by the Revolutionary Guard is the clearest indication of a new phase in the Tanker War 2019. The Tanker War 2019 started with mysterious damage to several vessels at anchor off Fujairah.
Iran was accused of carrying out overt attacks, but there has been no solid proof. Similarly, the Norwegian tanker-owning giant Frontline’s LR2 Front Altair was set on fire and Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement-managed methanol carrier Kokuka Courageous’ crew had to abandon ship after the vessel was holed.
The USA claimed to have video proof of the Revolutionary Guards removing unexploded mines and finding fragments of mines consistent with Iranian devices, but there was no outright evidence that would bring the allies together in taking concentrated action against Iran.
The next round was initiated by the UK, which used its Marines to seize a tanker in Gibraltar-controlled waters. The vessel was accused of smuggling Iranian crude oil to Syria, but once again, there was no direct link or evidence of sufficient strength presented in the public arena to convince the allies to take stronger action.
Instead, Iran made the next move, diverting UK-flagged MR2 tanker Stena Impero on the pretext of an investigation into an alleged maritime incident. The tactic of diverting tankers in the region on accusations of smuggling, trespass, incidents with Iranian vessels or failing to observe maritime regulations has a veneer of legitimacy. The ability by the Iranians to pick a specific vessel says a lot about its strategic planning and its play book.
According to VesselsValue, there are 11,663 tankers in the world fleet. There are currently 859 tankers on route to the Middle East Gulf. Of these, 21 are UK-flagged, ranging in size from VLCC to 20,000-dwt chemical carriers and include Stena Impero.
That search took me approximately 15 seconds and highlights the enormous difference between the 2003 Tanker War and the present day. Today there is a massive amount of data available on shipping, and I fully expect a country like Iran engaged in cyber warfare has long ago scraped all the shipping information databases of the major data providers.
Therefore, unlike 2003, the Tanker War is not a hit and miss affair, but one that gives the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a wide range of non-lethal but highly disruptive options.
These include stopping and searching merchant vessels that are too far from a responsive warship, gunboats and drones approaching and veering away from US-flagged vessels (there are currently three US-flagged tankers in the region) or forced diversions for ’breaches’ of maritime regulations.
It seems to me that as an industry, tankers are always going to be one step behind the actions taken by Iran and I foresee months of major and minor incursions. Insurance rates will rise, and the allies will be forced into introducing convoys, which will slow the export of crude oil and increase costs to operators and ultimately the cost of crude oil. I do not believe the Iranian aim is to bring tanker traffic in the Gulf to a halt, but to create an interruptive, unsettling and barely sustainable trade that will wear down the allies and bring them back to the negotiating table.
Until then, we face months of disruption, risky tactics by operators seeking to avoid Iranian contact, and the ever-increasing possibility of a hard war in the Gulf.
For further discussion of the predictions in 2019 and the prospects for 2020, book your place at the Tanker Shipping & Trade Conference, Awards & Exhibition in London in November 2019.