U.S. Navy Starts Accompanying Ships in Strait Where Iran Seized Cargo Carrier

Iranian warships regularly conduct military drills in the Strait of Hormuz — where a third of the world’s traded oil supplies pass through the narrow sea passage (AFP)

The U.S. Navy has begun accompanying American-flagged commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz, defense officials said on Thursday, a vigorous response to Iran’s seizure of a Marshall Islands-flagged ship this week in the gateway to the Persian Gulf.

Navy warships have started accompanying U.S.-flagged vessels through the narrow strait where Iranian patrol boats confronted the M/V Maersk Tigris on Tuesday and took control of the ship. While Iran characterized its seizure of the ship as the outgrowth of an unresolved financial dispute, American military officials saw it as a provocative show of force by Tehran.

On Thursday, the Pentagon approved the escort plan, defense officials said…

…For now, the Navy escorts will only apply to American ships, defense officials said. This week, the Pentagon said the U.S. was bound by treaties to protect the Marshall Island cargo ship, but said it was trying to resolve the dispute through diplomatic channels.

The American decision signals another escalation in tensions in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. military sent an aircraft carrier in April to shadow an Iranian flotilla suspected of carrying arms for Tehran’s militant allies in Yemen. The flotilla eventually turned back, and some Pentagon officials saw the seizure of the Maersk Tigris as a response to that incident.

Some 30% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments pass through the 21-mile-wide channel.

A representative for Rickmers Shipmanagement, which operates the Maersk Tigris, was allowed on Thursday to board the vessel for the first time since its seizure and reported the crew in good condition, the company said. Most crew members are from Eastern Europe and Asia.

Responding to a distress call on Tuesday from the ship, the U.S. sent a Navy destroyer, the USS Farragut, to the area, said Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren…

…Iranian officials have said the seizure of the ship is a commercial and legal matter, yet it coincides with a sharp escalation of tensions in the region.

On March 26, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia began carrying out airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The campaign aimed to oust the militants, who took control of Yemen’s government earlier this year, and restore to power the exiled president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

In support of the Saudi-led military operation, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the waters off Yemen in mid-April to prevent a convoy of Iranian ships suspected of bringing supplies to the Houthis from reaching Yemeni shores.

Some U.S. officials said the seizure of the Maersk Tigris was Iran’s way of asserting its influence in the Strait of Hormuz following the interdiction of its ships.

On April 24, Iranian vessels also surrounded the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington in the area, but sped off without seizing it.

For more details on the Maersk Tigris, see this earlier post.