Iranian navy ship..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Iranian naval forces shot at, boarded and confiscated a commercial vessel transiting the Straits of Hormuz on Tuesday.
The MV Maersk Tigris, a 65,000-ton container ship, was flying a Marshall Islands flag and operated by Rickmers Shipmanagement, a Singaporean company. The ship departed from the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah and was bound for the United Arab Emirates.
According to Iranian staterun media, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the ship under court order for “legal reasons,” which the Pentagon called “provocative” several hours later.
The Maersk Tigris initially ignored Iranian patrol boats that ordered it deeper into Iranian territorial waters, but complied after the vessels fired several warning shots, US Col. Steve Warren said. US forces in the region responded to its distress calls by sending the USS Farragut, a destroyer, to monitor the situation along with reconnaissance aircraft.
The ship, which is currently in Iranian custody, is not carrying any US citizens, Warren added. Iranian media claimed the ship was American, sailing under a false flag, while noting that its 34 crew members were mostly European.
The US has a compact with the Marshall Islands, formally known as the Compact of Free Association, which allows the US to use Marshall Islands land for military purposes in exchange for a US commitment to the defense of its assets.
The State Department said the ship was traversing an “internationally recognized maritime route,” though it was not immediately clear if that route was in international or Iranian waters.
The Obama administration has had several close-calls with Iran at sea. The US last publicly threatened to board and inspect ships carrying Iranian arms in 2014, when a vessel under a Panama flag was sailing toward Gaza. Israel volunteered to board the ship instead, and arrested its crew.
In 2011 and 2012, US President Barack Obama also sent two aircraft carriers through the Straits of Hormuz and into the Arabian Sea in response to threats from Tehran to close the strait, one of the most important waterways in the world for the flow of oil.
Some 17 million barrels per day – about 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil – passed through the Straits of Hormuz in 2013, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Just last week, the president directed the USS Theodore Roosevelt to the Gulf of Aden to “ensure the freedom of navigation” through its strait, US officials said, as Iranian ships approached Yemen’s shores.
Earlier in the day, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York to continue negotiations toward a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear work. The two utilized Zarif’s old residence, the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, for the meeting, marking the first time a US statesman has entered an Iranian facility since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
“We are, in fact, closer than ever to the good, comprehensive deal that we have been seeking, and if we can get there, the entire world will be safer,” Kerry said on Tuesday to a conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which brought both Kerry and Zarif to New York.
Asked whether the US believed Iran’s actions on the Maersk Tigris were related to the nuclear talks, a State Department spokesman declined to speculate. The US is committed to ensuring freedom of navigation in the strait, he added.
Reuters contributed to this report.