Iran's naval might.

Photographer: Ahmad Jafari/AFP/Getty Images

Marshall Islands Needs U.S. Help in Iran Standoff

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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The Marshall Islands, a small country that gained independence from the U.S.  in 1986, will almost definitely have to rely on the U.S. to retrieve a cargo ship flying its flag that was commandeered Tuesday by Iran's Navy, apparently in Iranian waters.

When asked if his country would request that the U.S. rescue the cargo ship from Iran, Junior Aini, the charge d'affairs for the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington, told us he was still awaiting guidance from his foreign ministry. But he also suggested that his country had no other recourse than to hope the U.S. responds.   

"The United States has the full security responsibility over the islands and for the defense of the islands, this is what our treaty says," he told us. Aini was referring to a 1986 accord between the U.S. and the island nation that set the terms for independence. The Marshall Islands has no standing army. News that Iran had boarded the Maersk Tigris surprised Aini. He said he initially learned about the incidentfrom watching Fox News.

Aini also said his nation is barred by the 1986 agreement from doing anything that would challenge America's role in this regard. "We cannot take any action that will impact the U.S. responsibility," he said.  Under a 1983 Compact of Free Association, the U.S. has “full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands,” according to a State Department fact sheet.

The ship is owned by the Danish conglomerate Maersk, which like many shipping companies uses Marshall Islands' "flags of convenience" to reduce operating costs and sidestep regulation. 

The incident seems a direct response to President Barack Obama's decision last week to send warships to the Arabian Sea. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said at the time that the warships were meant on "a very clear mission to ensure that shipping lanes remain open, to ensure there's freedom of navigation through those critical waterways, and to help ensure maritime security." On Tuesday, Warren told reporters it was “inappropriate” for Iran to fire shots at the cargo ship. He said the U.S. is looking into any obligation it may have for Marshall Islands-flagged ship.

Initial reports by Iran’s FARS News Agency and the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya network incorrectly stated that Iranian warships had seized a U.S. cargo vessel with 34 sailors aboard and directed it to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port.

Colonel Edward Thomas, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told us that the Maersk Tigris was intercepted by several Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol craft Tuesday morning while sailing through the Strait of Hormuz.

A statement by the Office of the Secretary of Defense said that that the ship was intercepted “while in Iranian territorial waters transiting inbound in the Strait of Hormuz.” The statement also said that no Americans were aboard. Its latest reported location was off the coast of Iran near Bandar Abbas. The shipping company told the U.S. Central Command that Iranian military personnel have boarded the ship. 

Thomas told us Iran's Navy "contacted the vessel and directed the Maersk Tigris’s master to divert further into Iranian waters." He added: "The master initially declined and one of the IRGCN patrol craft fired shots across the Maersk Tigris’s bow. The master then complied and diverted under escort by the IRGCN vessels.”

When the warning shots were fired, the Tigris issued a distress call, which was received by U.S. forces operating in the region, he continued. The U.S. military sent the Farragut, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, speeding to the location, but it was more than 60 miles away when the incident began. The Central Command’s Naval headquarters also sent a maritime reconnaissance aircraft to monitor the situation, Thomas said.

By taking a non-U.S. ship under questionable circumstances at a moment of high tension in the region, Iran has again put Washington in a tough spot. Given that the U.S. Senate is simultaneously debating its bill on oversight of Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, the repercussions are going to spread far beyond the Strait of Hormuz. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net