Four Iranian patrol boats fired warning shots across the bow of a Singapore-flagged merchant ship in the Persian Gulf on Thursday before it escaped into the territorial waters of the United Arab Emirates, according to the U.A.E.’s coast guard.
“The ship sent a distress call to the U.A.E. Coast Guard forces that responded to the call and helped it to reach the Jebel Ali port,” the coast guard said in a statement.
The incident on Thursday began when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hailed the ship, which didn’t respond, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose details.
The action by the Guard Corps, which is aligned with political hard-liners, came amid rising tensions over the wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations, whose leaders were meeting Thursday in Maryland with President Barack Obama.
It also occurred as Iran is in the final stage of negotiations with the U.S. and five other world powers over a deal to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
The Singapore-flagged Alpine Eternity, a tanker that carries oil products, was attacked in international waters near the U.A.E. coast, according to MTI Network, a company representing Transpetrol, its manager. The ship was sailing in ballast to the port of Fujairah to load a cargo, Pat Adamson, MTI’s chairman, said by phone. The identity of the attackers wasn’t confirmed, he said.
There were no injuries to the crew of 22 or 23 on board, Adamson said.
The latest incident, reported earlier Thursday by CNN, occurred weeks after Iran seized another commercial ship, the Marshall Islands-flagged MV Maersk Tigris, in the Strait of Hormuz, the No. 1 choke point for oil transit, in what turned out to be a commercial dispute.
That encounter prompted the U.S. Navy to begin accompanying U.S.-flagged ships through the strait for a time.
In a sign of the political sensitivity of the latest incident, Army Colonel Steve Warren declined to discuss details of Iran’s actions at a briefing for reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.
“We are aware of the situation between a commercial vessel and Iranian patrol craft in international waters that occurred today,” Warren said. “There were no U.S. military personnel or assets involved in this conflict.”
Asked whether the U.S. acted too soon in ending its mission accompanying American-flagged commercial ships, Warren said the mission and its duration were “based on the conditions at the time.”
Without ruling out resuming the mission, he said, “We retain a robust force presence in the Persian Gulf.”