By Natasha Phillips
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on July 19 seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, in an apparent response to the detention earlier this month by Gibraltar and the British Royal Marines of an Iranian oil tanker suspected of breaching EU sanctions. The Iranian government may be invoking Islamic law to try to justify the seizure, according to Imam Mohamad Tawhidi, who is also known as the Imam of Peace.
Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz have escalated after tough U.S. sanctions on Iran hit several of its industries, including its oil sector. The Iranian government has responded by threatening to close the Strait and seizing the British oil tanker.
The Strait of Hormuz is considered to be a key waterway for oil shipments, which connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Stena Impero was seized in the Strait, where Iranian officials said the tanker was violating international maritime rules. However, Stena Bulk, the company which owns the vessel, said the tanker was in full compliance with international regulations at the time.
Iranian officials said Stena Impero was seized because it hit an Iranian fishing boat, though no evidence of the collision was shared with Stena Bulk. Suspicions by the U.K. government that the tanker was taken as retaliation for the detention of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar could be well founded, Imam Tawhidi told Kayhan Life.
“Under Islamic jurisprudence, which Iran’s government currently applies and enforces, there is a loophole which allows for the exchange of assets,” Imam Tawhidi said.
“In this case, if you have something that has been taken from you, then you can take the equivalent from the person who took from you and the debt is considered settled,” he explained.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani hinted at an exchange of the tankers on July 24 in a speech during a cabinet session. Rouhani told attendees that if the European countries involved abandoned “some actions, including what they did in Gibraltar, they will receive a proper response from Iran.”
Shortly after the British tanker was seized, videos emerged on social media of the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, being played from the ship’s speakers, and of an Iranian national flag which had been hoisted on the ship. Suspected motivations behind the acts were discussed at length by analysts and social media users. Imam Tawhidi said there were several possible explanations.
“This kind of behavior could be viewed as a form of showing off. The second way of looking at this behavior is that it is a display of perceived authority. The third reason, and the one I believe to be the correct one, is that the azan was played during a time of prayer and was a form of observance,” he noted.
Satellite imagery examined by experts discovered that the Stena Impero had been sailing towards Saudi Arabia when it was intercepted by the IRGC. The ship had tried to bypass the guards’ boat, but upon entering Iranian waters, the tanker’s transponder was switched off.
Ships traveling through the Strait must pass through Iranian territorial waters. However, the Strait is subject to international law, which confers upon all merchant ships the right to innocent or transit passage through the Strait of Hormuz, depending on which legal framework applies to each ship.
Iran’s territorial rights over its waterway and accompanying international legislation covering the Strait have created further tensions in the region. Iranian lawmakers demanded the introduction of tolls for every ship going through the Strait 48 hours after the IRGC seized Stena Impero. The then UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt denounced the Iranian government’s seizure of the tanker as ‘state piracy.’
The following is the full interview with Imam Mohamad Tawhidi, the Imam of Peace.
After seizing Stena Impero, Islamic Revolutionary Guards placed the Islamic Republic’s flag on the ship and played the azan from its speakers. Were these acts designed to claim the ship as booty under Islamic jurisprudence in order to bypass international maritime law?
The tank could have been considered as booty under Islamic jurisprudence and considered seizable if Iran was in a state of war. This war could be Islamic war such as Jihad, when the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would officially announce war, or it could be a legal war.
An example of this would be where Britain declares it is at war with Iran, though not necessarily through conventional warfare. War could be perceived in instances where trading with Iran is shut down, sanctions imposed, the expulsion of diplomats and so on.
So under Islamic jurisprudence, seizing an asset from a country that appears to be at war with the Islamic Republic, which implements Islamic law, would be considered to be within the country’s legal and jurisprudential rights.
What other reasons could Iranian officials have had for playing the azan?
This kind of behavior is a form of showing off designed to display a show of strength. The guards were saying, “We have your property and we will make it ours.”
The second way of looking at this behavior is that it is an announcement of authority. The Islamic Republic of Iran is saying, “We have the authority to do this, we are dominating this asset and therefore we will play the azan on the ship.”
The third reason, and the one I believe to be the correct one, is the fact that the azan was played during a time of prayer. I don’t think they intended to pray on the ship though. The azan was simply played to observe the time of prayer itself.
Under Islamic law, it is illegal to pray on property that doesn’t belong to you. Even performing the required washing ritual before prayer on someone else’s property with someone else’s water is not allowed, especially without permission.
However, there is a loophole to this and that is the exchange of assets. In this case, if you have something that has been taken from you, then if you take the equivalent from the person who took from you, the debt is considered settled. That would allow for officials to pray on the ship in accordance with Islamic law.
Natasha is Kayhan Life’s managing editor and journalist writing on foreign affairs, Iran, and human rights.
She is a regular commentator on BBC, Sky News, London Live, France 2, RFI and RTL.
Natasha runs a child rights project called Researching Reform which aims to improve legislation and policy for children around the world.