Bangalore: The stand-off over the detention of an Indian ship in Iran on pollution concerns lasted 26 days before it ended rather tamely when Tehran released the ship on the basis of a letter of undertaking submitted by the ship’s owner to compensate for damages if pollution is proved.

It’s normal in the shipping business for owners to provide such undertakings in events like the one witnessed in Iran even though the detention was totally unwarranted given the circumstances surrounding the present case. If, indeed, the ship’s owner has to pay for clean-up operations, it will be indemnified by the insurers.

The release of the ship was preceded by last-minute manoeuvres when Iranian maritime authorities “downgraded" some defects on the ship that had been allegedly detected by them during inspections to show there was a spill. The act of downgrading implied that the defects did not exist. However, maritime authorities in Iran tried to persuade the ship’s captain and the chief engineer to give a signed statement saying the ship had caused “minor pollution", which the duo declined to furnish.

The incident has put the spotlight on port state control, or PSC, a mechanism put in place by the International Maritime Organization (IMO)—the global maritime regulator—to control the operation of sub-standard ships. PSC is a check on visiting foreign ships to verify their compliance with international rules on safety and pollution prevention.

The incident involving the ship named Desh Shanti, owned by Shipping Corporation of India Ltd, amply demonstrates the fallout of a misuse of the PSC regime, more importantly the holding-up of a merchant vessel on pollution charges without any evidence.

What has baffled the shipping industry more is that the incident involved India and Iran, two nations that have strong ties running back a few decades.

The ship was on her way from Basra in Iraq to Visakhapatnam in India, carrying crude for state-run refiner Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd when she was intercepted by the Iranian Navy and forcibly diverted towards the Nowrouz oil fields and later coerced to anchor at Bandar Abbas port in Iran.

The vessel had neither departed nor was destined for any Iranian port and was on an “innocent passage" to India when she was forcibly taken over by Iran’s maritime authorities almost 45 nautical miles from the coast (a distance well beyond Iran’s territorial waters), diverted to Iranian waters and subjected to PSC inspections. Iran’s actions transgressed many international maritime conventions.

For one, Iran did not follow the IMO resolution on PSC, which prescribe clear procedures to be followed by the coastal/port state authorities in case of a reported violation, including matching of samples from the alleged slick and the oil content of the vessel.

But what further exposed Iran’s claim and cast doubts about the credibility of the pollution itself was an opinion given by meteorological and oceanographic services firm Fugro GEOS Ltd.

After technical analysis of the satellite images of the alleged pollution, Fugro GEOS said that the “light brownish coloured streaks visible over the area of interest was only atmospheric dust carried by the prevailing winds and not an oil slick."

Apparently, the ship was detained by Iran on allegations of discharging its oily ballast water 30 miles from Iran’s Lavan Island in the Persian Gulf that caused a 10-mile-long oil stain on the sea.

But on 29 and 30 July, when this incident is said to have occurred, the ship was travelling to Iraq to load crude and was many nautical miles away from the alleged pollution site. This has been corroborated by satellite pictures of the alleged oil slick, the vessel’s position report and the ship’s track record based on the Ship Security Alert System (SSAS) and its course recorder data.

When the ship was first inspected by Iran’s port state control officers, it did not reveal any deficiency that could substantiate evidence of causing pollution. But subsequent inspections allegedly showed minor deficiencies, which, even if accepted, at the most attract Code “17" (rectify before departure) and not a detainable deficiency under any extended scope of interpretation of the IMO norms on PSC inspections.

Moreover, the fact that the first PSC inspection by Iran could not establish any defect proves that the ship’s equipment and systems were functioning satisfactorily at the time of the entry of the vessel into Iranian waters.

PSC is a legitimate mechanism to be utilized prudently for the eradication of sub-standard ships and detention is a provision to be invoked only in exceptional circumstances if the vessel poses a serious threat to life or the environment.

Iran is reeling under sanctions imposed by western nations against its nuclear programme, which Tehran says is intended for peaceful purposes.

The world’s fifth biggest oil producer is struggling to sell its crude due to the sanctions as it is unlawful for western underwriters to insure ships carrying Iranian crude and to re-insure refineries processing Iranian crude.

That Iran picked an Indian state-owned ship carrying cargo belonging to a state-run refiner to possibly hit back at western insurers by abusing the PSC regime holds ominous portent for the global shipping industry, which is passing through an unprecedented crisis.

Each day of the detention caused Shipping Corp. a revenue loss of about $30,000 to $35,000 at current market freight rates. Who will compensate for that is the big question. It’s also up to the IMO to ensure that such glaring misuse of the PSC regime does not recur.

P. Manoj looks at trends in the shipping industry.

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