The U.S. weighed its options as a Navy destroyer and three patrol boats continued to monitor a cargo ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands that was seized by Iranian naval forces, officials said.
“We are in discussions now with the Marshall Islands to determine the best way forward,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday. The ship, the MV Maersk Tigris, is anchored near Larak Island and the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, Warren said.
Naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ordered the ship farther into Iranian waters Tuesday as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. When the ship’s captain refused to comply, Iranians fired warning shots across the ship’s bridge, according to the U.S. Iranian military personnel then boarded the ship and brought it closer to shore.
While the ship’s seizure has inspired speculation that Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps might be trying to undercut negotiations on a nuclear accord with the U.S. and other world powers, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in New York on Wednesday that the incident simply involves naval forces acting under a court order in a commercial dispute that’s gone on for 15 or 16 years.
“It is not a security issue or a political issue,” Zarif said in remarks at New York University. “We shouldn’t read too much into it. Some people try to read too much into anything that is taking place now in order to torpedo a process that is independent of all of those problems.”
The ship’s seizure appears to be illegal, according to Myron Nordquist, a maritime law specialist.
Based on what’s known, “Iran had no legal basis under international law for interfering with that vessel,” which was operating in international transit lanes near Iran, said Nordquist, a senior fellow at the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.
The Marshall Islands has requested U.S. assistance in securing the vessel’s release, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington. She said the U.S. is communicating with officials of the islands and of the shipping company “about how best to effect that outcome.”
She said no Americans were aboard the seized ship, according to information from its officers.
Flying the Flag
Under agreements with the Marshall Islands, the U.S. “has full authority and responsibility” for security and defense matters, Harf said, “including vessels flying their flag.”
But Nordquist, a former adviser and legislative counsel in the State Department’s Office of Legal Adviser, said the U.S. “has a very tenuous at best, ambiguous responsibility” under its security accord with the Marshall Islands.
Responsibility depends on how the U.S. interprets the phrase “full authority and responsibility” under its security accord with the former U.S.-administered trust territory, he said in an interview.
“I would much rather have the case of saying the U.S. was not responsible for the Marshall Islands’ flag-of-convenience vessels, particularly when it involves a civil dispute,” he said.
Michael Christian Storgaard, a spokesman for AP Moeller-Maersk A/S, said in an e-mailed statement that the Copenhagen-based company was “pleased to learn that the crew is safe and, under the circumstances, in good spirits.”
He said Maersk, which doesn’t own the ship but uses it “on-hire” in its service in the Black Sea and Persian Gulf, was “continuing our efforts to obtain more information about the Iranian authorities’ seizure -- in international waters -- of Maersk Tigris.” He said the company also was in discussions with the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Iran has said the ship was seized in relation to a commercial dispute, but Maersk said it’s received no written notification of such a claim.
The ship was carrying cargo “that could be anything from consumer electronics to spare parts -- no special cargo on the vessel,” Cor Radings, a spokesman for Rickmers Ship Management, the vessel’s manager, said in a phone interview.
Asked about the ship’s seizure, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. has “a vested economic interest in preserving the free flow of commerce.”
“We have in the past talked about the wide range of concerns we have with Iranian behavior,” Earnest said. “Our view is a nuclear-armed Iran only makes their bad behavior even more dangerous.”
As the U.S. weighs its options, Warren said the destroyer the USS Farragut and three patrol boats are “keeping an eye on things,” and their presence gives “commanders options.”
“The United States has full discretion on what actions to take,” he said.
In a coincidence of timing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday issued a routine statement of congratulations to the Marshall Islands on the 36th anniversary of its independence May 1.