San Francisco: The US Navy on Thursday started accompanying American-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, in the wake of the Maersk Tigris incident.
It’s a tactic that suggests the Americans are not wholly buying the “commercial dispute” explanation for Tuesday’s incident in which Iranian navy patrol boats captured the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship the Maersk Tigris (62,292 dwt, built 2014) in the Strait. The ship and its 24-man crew are being held at anchor off the Iranian island of Qeshm.
Iranian authorities and Maersk spokespeople have cited an unresolved 10-year-old lost cargo compensation case as the reason behind the seizure.
But hawks in the US have seen the incident as a calculated provocation, bearing in mind Iran knows the US has defence commitments to Marshall Islands vessels.
Tensions between the two nations have been tightening recently after difficult nuclear talks and their opposed interests in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
US military officials said their stepped-up protection of vessels is a precautionary move intended to prevent things escalating. That’s indicated by their use of the word “accompanying” rather than “escorting”. The latter would be close shadowing of US-flagged vessels through the Strait, whereas “accompanying” just requires the Navy to be in the vicinity.
In practice it’s a fairly minor commitment as the number of commercial US ships using the Strait is relatively small. Hence the allocation of just one destroyer and three smaller coastal patrol ships to the task.
The seizure of the Maersk Tigris was the second provocation by Iran in recent days following another when US-flagged Maersk Kensington was swarmed by Iranian boats before they departed without incident.
Some see the Maersk Tigris incident as a response to another recent case when a US aircraft carrier shadowed a flotilla of Iranian boats suspected of carrying weapons intended for parties in the Yemen conflict. Eventually the flotilla turned back.
Iranian officials have said the Maersk Tigris will be released as soon as the court judgment of $3.6m in the lost cargo case is paid.