The U.S. Navy has accompanied four American-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz so far in response to Iran’s seizure of a cargo ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, a former trust territory for which the U.S. has some security and defense responsibilities.
“All four ships were Military Sealift Command or U.S. government contract vessels,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. “This is going to continue for an indefinite period of time.”
The U.S. move reflects increased tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, the No. 1 choke point for oil transit, after Iran seized the MV Maersk Tigris in the strait on Tuesday to enforce a court order in a decade-long commercial dispute.
The mission involves close monitoring of the ships but stops short of providing a military escort alongside each vessel. It “means that you’ve got a ship in the area that can respond in the event it’s required,” Air Force Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said. “Escort would be ‘no kidding’ right up near the ship, going alongside it in fairly close proximity.”
He said that the Maersk Tigris remains in Iran’s custody. While Ryder said discussions are being held with other nations about potentially accompanying their ships, the operation currently is focused on U.S.-flagged vessels.
No Daily Count
Warren said the Pentagon won’t disclose a daily count of how many vessels are accompanied or identify them by name. “When we stop, we’ll let you know,” he said, “and if there are incidents we’ll let you know.”
Six U.S.-flagged vessels are now in the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz, according to Bloomberg vessel-tracking data. They include one container ship, three offshore supply ships and two vehicle carriers.
The U.S. Navy has 11 vessels in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf that could immediately accompany vessels -- five patrol craft, four destroyers, one cruiser and one minesweeper, according to an official with the service who asked not to be identified discussing deployments. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is in the Persian Gulf, but unlikely to participate, the official said.
In 2013, about 17 million barrels of oil a day, about 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil, passed through the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway that connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
At its narrowest point, the strait is 21 miles (34 kilometers) wide. But the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles, separated by a two-mile buffer zone, according to the EIA report.
Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris “presumably” stems from a $3.6 million judgment in a decade-long dispute over 10 shipping containers, the Maersk Group said in a statement on Thursday. On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his country’s naval forces acted under a court order.
Naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confronted the Maersk Tigris, ordering it farther into Iranian waters. 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.
International law permits a ship to be detained while in a nation’s territorial waters if such action is recognized under that country’s laws. The Strait of Hormuz is an unusual situation because established international shipping lanes include Iranian territorial waters.
Last week, four Iranian patrol boats tailed the Maersk Kensington, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday.
The pursuit lasted 15 to 20 minutes before the Iranian boats veered away, he said.
After the seizure of the Maersk Tigris, Republican U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the incident a “serious and deliberate provocation against the United States.” Some commentators suggested that Iranian hard-liners seemed to have seized the ship in response to the movement of U.S. warships close to Yemen or to undercut negotiations over their nation’s nuclear program.
Zarif rejected such theories in his comments this week.
“It is not a security issue or a political issue,” the foreign minister said. “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.”