Although the government seems quick to downplay the seizure of the Marshall Islands flagged container ship Maersk Tigris by Iranian gunboats on Tuesday, U.S. Navy ships in the region have now been ordered to escort American affiliated cargo ships through the volatile Straits of Hormuz.
This escalation comes as information has emerged regarding another peculiar event that happened a week ago, also in the Straits of Hormuz. Once again, Iranian gunboats surrounded another US affiliated cargo vessel transiting through the area. They eventually left the ship alone, although how exactly the incident came to an end remains unclear.
According to Stars And Stripes:
U.S. defense officials said the decision to begin accompanying U.S. commercial vessels as they transit the strait was based on a recommendation by U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter was briefed on the decision, one official said, adding that the Obama administration does not want the move to be seen as provocative, given the delicate state of the Iran nuclear agreement. The pact has yet to be finalized and is the subject of intense scrutiny and considerable criticism in Congress.
America’s surface warfare escort force on the scene is not a huge one, with just one Arleigh Burke Class destroyer, the USS Farragut (DDG-99), on station, as well as a trio of small Cyclone class patrol vessels. While these ships are highly capable, especially the Farragut, it is doubtful that any of them could easily repulse a full on swarm attack by the IRGC’s throngs of cigarette gun boats and missile patrol craft, especially if caught by surprise. There is also a P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems said to be operating over the volatile waterway. These aircraft could provide early warning of Iranian naval movements around the complex littorals that make up the Straits of Hormuz.
Seeing as the the Maersk Tigris and its crew still are being held in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbass, at the minimum, the US Navy is asking US flagged and affiliated ships to stay in continuous radio contact with the nearby US Navy escort task force during their transit through the tight waterway.
Iran claims that its courts have ruled that Maersk Shipping owed Iran $3.6 million for 10 containers that were delivered over a decade ago on behalf of an Iranian business entity operating in Dubai. The shipping giant says the cargo was never claimed so it was eventually disposed of by the local government.
Firing on a commercial ship over a bill that is debatably owed in the first place, and not even by the ship’s actual operator, which is Rickmers Ship Management out of Singapore, is most likely just a vague excuse to seize an American related vessel in the most critical shipping choke-point in the world. One that Iran could hold hostage at any time of its choosing.
As to Iran’s goal for executing such a questionable operation? The hardline IRGC leadership is not happy that the Iranian government is negotiating with the US over a possible nuclear deal. Simply put, this is seen as almost a kind of blasphemy among hardliners within the country’s power apparatus. Then there is the fact that the US blocked Iran from moving weapons to Houthi Rebels in Yemen via a naval blockade. This was a move that surely angered IRGC commanders and intelligence personnel who are directly involved with the Yemeni civil war.
Finally, just yesterday, the Saudis went so far as cratering the runways at the airport in Yemen’s capital in order to make it impossible for a Airbus A310 carrying what Iran claimed was a shipment of ‘humanitarian aid’ to land there.
So was the Iranian seizure of the Maersk Tigris a retaliation for America’s intervention in Iran’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen? Was it a reminder to the US of one of Iran’s most potent military cards it could play, their ability to shut down a shipping lane where literally 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through? Or was it simply a major Iranian overreaction to an accounting issue?
We really don’t know for certain. Yet these hardly seem like the actions of a nation who genuinely wants to sign a deal with America and five other key nations over its nuclear program.
Then again, maybe they are, as Iran has probably figured out the Obama Administration is highly invested in these talks politically, and that they can probably get away with pretty much anything short of an outright skirmish or gunfight without derailing the process permanently. Alternatively, if the seizure was not sanctioned at the highest levels of Iran’s government, then maybe it is a sign of a fracture forming between the country’s political leadership and its hard-line military leadership.
Like so many other Iranian questions, we will have to wait to get our answers on June 30th, when Iran either makes a deal on its nuclear program or it does not. If it does not, all these actions may be just a taste of what is to come in future post failed nuclear talks Iranian-US relations.
Photos via AP & US Navy
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