In a world with few friends, Iran must be reminded of its need for Indian friendship and realise the costs of antagonising its partner.
MT Desh Shanti, an oil tanker owned by Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) was detained a few days ago by Iranian authorities, allegedly for dumping oil into the ocean and causing a 16km long oil stain, 48km away from Lavan Island in the Persian Gulf.
According to Gulf Daily News, law Firm, Holman Fenwick Willan is reported to have said that following a telephonic enquiry by UK Maritime Trade Oranisation, two thorough checks were conducted, which confirmed no leakage from the vessel on July 30th. SCI spokesmen have also vigorously denied the allegations, noting that authorities in Iraq as well as Iran without any evidence of wrongdoing have inspected the ship. The ship is currently being subjected to further inspections by Iran.
Multiple questions arise at this point. First, Why would the Desh Shanti be dumping oil in the ocean? Commercial ships produce a lot of liquid waste, foul water and leaked oil, which accumulates in bilge tanks at the bottom of the ship. It was standard practice in the early 20th century to dump sludge and bilge water into the ocean. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil in 1954 and MARPOL have banned such practice, leading to a decrease in such instances. However, examples of violations abound since it is much more expensive to hire properly trained contractors to dispose of the waste material properly.
It is important to note at this point that no Indian shipping company carrying crude oil into India has had any major pollution related incident for 10 years. In fact, SCI’s confidence in its non-pollution record has allowed it to operate with minimum insurance cover. (Thanks to European insurers backing out because of Western sanctions on Iranian oil.)
The second question relates to the right of Iranian authorities to detain the ship. SCI Chairman, BK Mandal and Indian newspapers have said that the ship was detained in international waters. Iranian sources have claimed, however, that the ship was in Iranian water. As noted above, Iranian news agency, Fars reported that the ship was 48 km off the Iranian coast, which would place it well outside Iranian territorial waters (defined as 22km from the coastline according to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
If the ship was in international waters, the Iranians are in clear violation of international law by forcibly boarding the ship or taking coercive action. (Article 111 of UNCLOS governing “hot pursuit” makes it very clear that such action cannot be taken outside territorial waters. It also provides for compensation in case of erroneous detention.)
The third question that arises is the motivation behind such drastic action by Iranian authorities. It is possible that the incident is Iran’s way of signaling to India, its displeasure over India’s reduced oil imports from Iran, following Western sanctions. India imported 7.2 percent of its oil from Iran last fiscal year, down from 10.5 percent the year before that. Iran has dropped from second to sixth place among India’s top suppliers, while Iraq (no great friend of Iran’s) has become India’s largest crude oil supplier recently. The move has stunned the Indian diplomatic corps given India’s attempts to accommodate Iranian concerns and refusal to comply fully with Western sanctions. More importantly (and strangely), the incident comes just after Finance Minister Chidambaram noted recently “Within the UN sanctions and fully complying with the sanctions, there may be more space for imports from Iran.” Reeling from the economic effect of sanctions, Iran has agreed to let India buy its oil in rupees, a mutually beneficial move given the depreciating rupee.
India’s response to this incident needs to keep in mind the strategic significance of Iran to the geopolitics of the region. Iran is crucial to the endgame in Afghanistan, being the only land-access to Afghanistan through the Indian financed port of Chahbahar. Cooperation between the two countries is essential in order to limit subversive Pakistani designs in the region. Recent Chinese offers to upgrade the Chahbahar port has raised hackles in India as China tries to extend its influence, having just recently helped Pakistan build the Gwadar port, just 70 km away.
A bill passed by the US House of Representatives last month further complicates the situation for India. This bill limits Obama’s executive powers to grant waivers to countries like India that continue to purchase Iranian oil. The need to deepen diplomatic engagement with Iran to bypass the dollar and American financial institutions blocked off by sanctions now assumes further importance.
Indian diplomats have been engaged in hectic diplomatic parleys with their Iranian counterparts over the last 2 days. It is imperative that India views this as an aggressive Iranian move in clear violation of international law and registers its disapproval in no uncertain terms. In a world with few friends, Iran must be reminded of its need for Indian friendship and realise the costs of antagonising its partner. India should note that Iran has not chosen to play a similar game with China, for example, that has also reduced its Iranian oil imports over the last fiscal year. The Indo-Persian relationship is an old and a strong one, but India needs to remind Iran to respect that friendship and not mistake Indian magnanimity for weakness.
Shoikat Roy is a Takshashila Scholar.