Netanyahu: Israeli Navy Could "Block" Iranian Oil Shipping

Iranian-owned tanker (NITC)

Published Mar 6, 2019 6:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

In an address at a naval academy graduation ceremony on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the Israeli Navy could become involved in "blocking" Iranian oil shipments. 

"Iran is trying to bypass the sanctions on it through the covert smuggling of petroleum via the sea. As these attempts expand, the navy will have a more important role in efforts to block these Iranian actions,” Netanyahu said. “I call on the entire international community to stop Iran’s attempts to circumvent the sanctions by sea, and of course, by any (other) means.”

The comments come as Netanyahu faces two political challenges - a criminal indictment and a re-election campaign. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has warned Netanyahu's legal team to prepare for possible criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with several alleged influence-peddling schemes. In addition, the next parliamentary election is scheduled for April 9, and it will determine whether Netanyahu continues in his post. 

Netanyahu did not clarify the extent of his plans, but interference with merchant shipping can run up against treaty limitations. If a naval vessel's crew boards a foreign merchant vessel in international waters, without the flag state's permission, it is a violation of the Convention on the High Seas (unless the vessel is engaged in piracy or slavery). An unauthorized high seas boarding could potentially be interpreted as an act of aggression, as the vessel is technically the territory of the flag state. 

Stateless vessels - those without a valid flag or with more than one flag  - are not entitled to formal protections against boarding and inspection. Governments often use this exception to interdict drug smugglers and human traffickers in small craft, and it has been deployed to take control of merchant vessels as well. In an example from 2014, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs boarded and seized the stateless oil tanker Morning Glory in international waters after she loaded a stolen cargo of crude in Libya.