The container ship Maersk Tigris was ordered to stop its transit through the Straits of Hormuz by Iranian gunboats. When it didn’t, the Iranian ships fired shots in front of its bow, which promptly brought the ship to a halt. It was subsequently bordered and seized, and now the US Destroyer Farragut is speeding to the scene.
According to the Fars News Agency, Iranian officials stated:
“The ship is a trade vessel and has been seized by the Iranian naval forces at the request of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization (IPMO)... The ship was seized after a relevant court order was issued for its confiscation.”
Fars reports that Iranian officials claim the ship is “Marshall Islands-flagged, but is owned by the US” and had some sort of overdue payments to settle with the IPMO. As far as ownership goes, the ship is reported to be operated by Rickmers Ship Management which have main offices in Germany and Singapore, while Maersk is based out of Denmark. However, that’s not to say that the ship doesn’t have US investors.
The event itself happened in the early morning around 4am, with the Maersk Tigris last tracked at around 11:35AM PST, so its transponder could be turned off. Iranian officials made it clear that they intend to dock the seized ship at the nearby strategic port of Bandar Abbas. The last received location would put the Maersk Tigris about 10 miles from this stated destination. Reports vary, although there seems to be between 24 and 34 crew onboard, and none are stated to be of US origin.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren did not have much to say about the event, although he saw it as “inappropriate” and that:
At first appearance it does seem to be provocative behavior, but again we don’t have all the facts yet.
An unmanned aircraft was said to have been over the ship at some point during the Iranian operation, and even with the USS Farragut’s presence nearby, it’s limited as to what it can do. Venturing deep into Iranian waters, or even loitering in the Strait of Hormuz for a prolonged period, could drastically escalate the situation.
It’s also unclear if the Maersk Tigris strayed into Iranian waters. Although according to Fars, Iran did not claim this was the reason they stopped and seized the ship, and tracking tools show it cruising along a normal route into the Persian Gulf.
It also remains unclear what exactly the 52,000 displacement-ton container ship was carrying. According to open sources, it looks like its last port of call was on Apr 21, at Jeddah, one of Saudi Arabia’s main Red Sea ports. Its final destination is shown as the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.
Although the ship’s cargo could be anything, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are two of the most capable military partners in the Sunni Arab coalition aimed at striking down Iranian-backed Houthi rebel forces in Yemen. Seizing a ship with arms on board, such as precision guided munitions or other advanced gear, could be a propaganda and technological coup for Iran. The timing is especially troublesome as a near standoff occurred just last week with an Iranian flotilla stocked with shipments of arms intended for Houthi rebels in Yemen turned around before facing off directly with a an American Super Carrier and her escorts in the region.
All of this comes as the P5+1 negotiating partners seek to finalize a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. As such, every single military and geopolitical move by any of the major players involved is under a microscope.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com