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Legal Scholar: Iran’s Seizure of Cargo Ship a “Flagrant Breach of International Law”

The seizure of the ship Maersk Tigris by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) last week was a “flagrant breach of international law,” Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich wrote Sunday in The Washington Post.

Iran has claimed that the ship was seized in order to settle a lien against the Maersk shipping line imposed by an Iranian court. Kontorovich noted that although there is a doctrine of seizing a “sister ship” to satisfy a claim, the case of the Maersk Tigris is not governed by that doctrine, since such seizures are only allowed when the ship is in port.

Iran’s claims clearly do not satisfy any version of the “sister ship” rule. The Tigris is owned by Oak Tree Capital, and merely chartered by Maersk. The Iranian court judgement is apparently against Maersk itself, regarding the operation of a vessel with totally different owners. Instead, they are at most “associated ships.” Such vessels cannot be arrested under the Brussels Convention, or apparently under Iranian maritime law. To be sure, many countries now apply modern corporate veil-piercing doctrines to allow the attachment of vessels with a common “real” owner, but again, the common party here appears to only be the time-charterer.

The discussion of sister ships is quite arcane, and ultimately besides the point. The arrest of vessels applies typically to those that have come into port. There is no right to arrest for prior or collateral obligations during an innocent passage through territorial waters. That is, in waters where ships have an international right to transit – such as the Gulf – they may not be molested at all by coastal states for the enforcement of outstanding maritime liens.

Kontorovich punctuated his analysis by observing:

Iran’s seizure clearly violates international law, and one might add, a branch of international law that is ordinarily well-respected, and quite fundamental for global commerce. Moreover, no maritime lien gives Iran any authority to detain the crew.

Kontorovich also wondered why Iran’s seizure of the cargo ship hasn’t provoked more outrage: “Given the flagrant breach of international law, there seems to be a surprising silence from the ‘international community’ and proponents of global governance.”

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew suggested last week that the White House is leaning towards lifting sanctions on most of the IRGC.

Iranian Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif attempted to justify the seizure of the Maersk Tigris in a talk at New York University. While in New York, Zarif also claimed that Iran did not imprison people for their beliefs, earning the derision of Iranian rights advocates.

[Photo: wochit News / YouTube ]