Stena impero: The story behind the seized British tanker

Reading time: 6-7 minutes.

Last week, Iran announced that the British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Impero, was “free to leave”, thereby ending a two-month long stand-off between Tehran and London which was a result of each country seizing the other’s oil tanker.

While a government spokesperson of Iran assured on 23rd September, 2019 that the legal process regarding Stena Impero’s detention was complete and that it could leave Iranian waters, the ship finally received clearance for sail only on 27th September, 2019 as the investigation into environmental damage remained open.

What is the Steno Impero incident all about?

Two weeks after the British Royal Marines seized the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya-1 off the shores of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized the Stena Impero tanker on 19th July, 2019 in the Strait of Hormuz for allegedly violating maritime rules and regulations in the Persian Gulf. A Liberian-flagged but British-operated tanker was also detained for several hours by the Iranian forces.

According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, the official news agency of Iran, the British-registered oil tanker collided with an Iranian fishing boat, thereby damaging it. As Stena Impero failed to answer its distress calls, the fishing boat informed Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization which in turn notified the IRGC, leading to an investigation and subsequent detention by the latter.

However, the owners of Stena Impero maintain that the ship was “approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter during transit in the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.

The tanker was manned by 23 crew members belonging to India, Russia, Latvia, and Philippines, of whom seven Indians were released earlier this month. The move to release the tanker came only after Adrian Darya-1 was released by Gibraltar authorities in late August.

What has been the global reaction to this incident?

The seizing of the “Stena Impero” could be seen as the most significant escalation in the tensions between Iran and the West since it began rising in May, 2018 when the United States pulled itself out from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), which is also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.

The confrontation between the two sides has given rise to global concerns as any misunderstanding or misstep by either side has the potential to lead to war, especially since the incident occurred just a couple of days after Donald Trump, the US President, was reported to be considering air strikes on Iran as a retaliation against its attack on an American drone.

While UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had decried the action as an illegal interference that was totally and utterly unacceptable and a clear contravention of international law, Abbas Ali Kadkhodayee, spokesperson for Iran’s Guardian Council, termed it as a “correct measure…based on international rights”, laying emphasis on the rule of reciprocal action.

The US patrol aircrafts and British warships were sent to the area to ensure the safety of American and British ships respectively. Further, while Donald Trump had declined to specify the US response to the situation, he maintained that they would work closely with the U.K. government on an appropriate course of action. 

What are the issues of international law involved in this case?

Several interesting legal issues involving International Maritime law and international customary law come to fore in the handling of the incident by both the sides.

Part III of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is designed in order to keep open vital chokepoints for seaborne trade. Hence, Article 44 of UNCLOS mandates that a State shall neither hamper nor suspend transit passage for any reason.

However, unlike the UK, Iran has not yet ratified the UNCLOS. This raises the question as to whether Iran is bound to follow the obligations under the treaty. If at all the latter agrees to be sued in an international court or tribunal, Part III UNCLOS may at least be argued as a customary international law in order to bind Iran.

With respect to Iran’s claim of reciprocal action, International Law recognises the Doctrine of Countermeasure which permits, if certain conditions are present, a limited degree of direct enforcement of obligations owed by one state to another. While detention of one ship in response to that of another meets the proportionality requirement, the argument of countermeasure stands on a slippery slope of legality.

On the other hand, ships in transit must ensure compliance with generally accepted international regulations, procedures, and practices for safety at sea, including the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

What is the probable future?

The vessel left for international waters at 5:30 GMT on 27th September. It would now head towards Dubai where the remaining crew would be debriefed and provided with medical care.

It is yet to be seen what the fallouts of this incident will be. As of now, the UK is accusing Iran of the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities. While UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, maintains that he wishes to de-escalate tensions, he has not ruled out the possibility of military action against Iran if called upon by the United States or Saudi Arabia.

Even as the vessel has left for international waters, this truce stands on shaky grounds as the relations between Iran and the West remain tense. The situation seems volatile in the Gulf, with conflicts escalating each day. The international community continues to watch the key players with apprehension.

This article is brought to you in collaboration Shivani Karmakar from Amity Law School, affiliated to Guru Gobind Singh Indrapastha, New Delhi.


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