Iranian targeting of shipping in the Arabian Gulf ‘changes the game’ by raising risks to new levels

Tehran known to target British and American crew members and was disappointed by failure to seize Western nationals in recent hijackings

FILE - In this July 21, 2019 file photo, a speedboat of the Iran's Revolutionary Guard moves around a British-flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero, which was seized by the Guard, in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The U.S. Navy is trying to put together a new coalition of nations to counter what it sees as a renewed maritime threat from Iran. Meanwhile, Iran finds itself backed into a corner and ready for a possible conflict. It stands poised on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, to further break the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. (Hasan Shirvani/Mizan News Agency via AP, File)
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Insurance and shipping leaders said specific targeting of UK and US crew by Iran has left the industry to grapple with escalating tensions between Tehran and the West.

Nick Busvine, a partner at the strategic intelligence firm Herminius, told The National the drive from Tehran to take British and American hostages while targeting commercial shipping in the Arabian Gulf "changes the game" for the insurance industry.

Speaking at London's International Shipping Week, Mr Busvine said Iranian communications, intercepted by Washington and now in the public domain, had shown Tehran's disappointment no British or American crew members had been seized on board the Stena Impero when it was detained in July.

“They were actively looking for some Brits or some Americans,” he said.

He also said there was no indication the Iranians would not try to do so again.

“There is plenty of room for this situation to escalate further,” he said.

In June, war risk premiums climbed to $185,000 for super tankers heading to the Arabian Gulf. They rose to $50,000 following increased tension in the region one month earlier.

The surge in premiums followed the designation of a number of territorial waters in and around the Strait of Hormuz to high risk after four commercial ships were damaged off the coast of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman.

The Joint War Committee, which includes representatives from Lloyd’s of London and the International Underwriters Association of London, added waters off the UAE and Oman to areas of “enhanced risks” in May saying more attacks could not be definitively ruled out.

Also speaking at the London Shipping Week event hosted by Lockton insurance brokers, Richard Young of Beazley underwriting and insurance indicated rates were unlikely to fall in the short term.

“The situation is as tense as ever,” Mr Beazley said, explaining there were incidents on an almost daily basis in the Arabian Gulf. “IRGC boats are passing Royal Navy boats and they are exchanging fire,” he said referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “There is a lot that doesn’t go reported,” he added.

Mr Beazley also highlighted the case of the Stena Impero and its possible implications for the insurance industry.

On Sunday Iran hinted that the UK-flagged, Swedish-owned vessel could be released within days. The seizure of the tanker was seen as a tit-for-tat detention by Iran against Britain.

British commandos seized the Iranian tanker, formerly the Grace 1 but subsequently named the Adrian Draya 1, off the coast of Gibraltar over suspicions it was breaking EU sanctions to ship oil to Syria.

The ship was released by the British territory on August 18 after authorities in Gibraltar received written assurances from Iran it would not sell the oil in Syria. The vessel went on to sell the oil there regardless.

In Britain, former Navy chief Adm Lord West and former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt have criticised the handling of the incident involving the British-flagged vessel in June.

Lord West told a commons select committee on defence on Monday that UK actions ahead of the seizure of the Stena Impero had been poor.

“We are responsible. Our Royal Navy, the ships they protect are those that are flagged to the UK,” he said.

Ms Mordaunt indicated her attempts to have the Iranian threat to shipping in the Arabian Gulf addressed by her own government had been ignored. While in office until July, she said she had specifically asked about British nationals aboard ship.

She also expressed specific fears about any mariners who were also military reservists on board vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

While a Cobra committee meeting to discuss events was called, at her request, before the Stena Impero was seized but long after the Grace 1 had been detained and the Fujairah attacks took place.