Details are a little sketchy, but what’s clear is that a cargo ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, a U.S. protectorate, was intercepted in international waters by Iranian vessels. When the ship, the MV Maersk Tigris, refused the Iranian vessel’s demand that it heave to, it was fired upon with shots across the bow.
At that point, the Maersk Tigris sent out a distress signal. The U.S. Navy responded by dispatching the destroyer Farragut and an aircraft to monitor the situation. But the Farragut was 60 miles away and by the time they reached the point of contact, the Iranians had seized the Maersk Tigris and directed it to dock in an Iranian port.
At nightfall in the region, the Maersk Tigris was reported by international ship tracking services to be at Bandar Abbas, on the north coast of the Strait of Hormuz, where it was diverted from its course for Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.
The Iranian vessel fired shots when the Maersk Tigris captain initially declined Iranian demands to halt and change direction, Warren said.
The ship was forced to dock at Bandar Abbas, Al-Arabiya said, and Iranian forces boarded the ship to detain its crew.
There was no official confirmation of the incident from Iranian officials. The semi-official Fars news agency, though, observed in a report cited to Al-Arabiya that the Iranian navy typically seizes vessels that “arrive illegally in Iran’s territorial waters.”
Fars, quoting what it said was a well-informed source, later added that the Iranian Ports and Maritime Organization had sought and received a court order authorizing seizure of the vessel. The news agency quoted the source as saying that the Marshall Islands “are ruled by the U.S.,” and that most of the seized ship’s crew were of European nationality, some likely with U.S. citizenship.
The Marshall Islands were once under U.S. administration, but have been independent since 1986. They retain close ties to the United States, however.
The Iranians are lying when they say the ship was in Iranian territorial waters. The Maersk Tigris was steaming in a well-recognized shipping lane used by hundreds of ships every month.
Patrick Megahan of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tweeted the actual course of Maersk Tigris:
Maersk Tigris was clearly in international waters and diverted by Iranian navy pic.twitter.com/3hVbLy0KlG
— Patrick Megahan (@PatMegahan) April 28, 2015
Iran gave the game away when they claimed that the Marshall Islands are “ruled by the U.S.” and that some of the crew could be American citizens. It’s why the Pentagon says that this is a “provocation” rather than a misunderstanding or some other diplomatic weasel words.
Indeed, the U.S. has a security agreement with the Marshall Islands:
While the Marshall Islands is a sovereign country, the U.S. “has full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands,” according to the U.S. State Department. Maersk, the shipping line whose vessel was commandeered, is one of the largest employers of U.S. merchant mariners, and “operate[s], manage[s] and maintain[s] ships for the U.S. government ships in preposition and surge sealift capacities,” according to its website.
In other words, the Iranians were fully aware they had a ripe target in their sights and seized the ship in order to thumb their nose at America and the American Navy. The price they will ask for the release of the ship and crew will no doubt be a steep one.
So far, the U.S. hasn’t demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the vessel. Nor should we expect such a demand as long as the Obama administration will let no humiliation or provocation by Iran come between the president and his “historic” nuclear agreement with Tehran.