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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Iran Keeps Defying the United States in the Persian Gulf – So Far with Impunity

Filed under: Iran, The Middle East, U.S. Policy

An Iranian fastboat, the type harassing Western shipping in the Gulf
An Iranian fastboat, the type harassing Western shipping in the Gulf

Violent Seizure of a Commercial Vessel

In a defiant and belligerent move, the navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN) seized a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship at the Strait of Hormuz after firing several warning shots at it on April 28, 2015.

Since the 1980’s, Iran has a history of threatening U.S. and allied shipping in the Persian Gulf.1 On April 24, Iranian warships harassed, but did not board, another large commercial ship, the U.S.-flagged Kensington.

IRGC Navy fighters boarded, took over the Marshall Islands ship and diverted it to Iranian territorial waters near the port of Bandar Abbas. Iranian authorities claimed that the cargo ship has entered Iranian territorial waters. The Pentagon spokesman confirmed that Iran had commandeered the Maersk Tigris M/V and that it was now in the “vicinity of Larak Island, in the Strait of Hormuz.” The ship had been on its way from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.2

Iran’s Fars News Agency, which is associated with the IRGC, originally reported that the IRGC’s navy (IRGCN) had seized an “American commercial vessel” carrying 34 people. A knowledgeable source said the ship had been captured by the IRGCN, which is responsible for patrolling the sensitive Persian waters, at the request of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization. “The ship was seized after a relevant court order was issued for its confiscation,” it claimed.3,4

The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), with larger deep water ships, concentrates its operations in the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.

The Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation and a close “compact ally” of the United States. Under a 1983 Compact of Free Association, the United States has “full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands,” according to a State Department fact sheet.5 The commitment includes “matters related to vessels flying the Marshallese flag,” State Department Spokesman Jeff Rathke said on April 28.6

The seizure of the Maersk Tigris M/V is seen as blatant defiance of the United States.  The takeover could lead to an aggravation of Iranian-U.S. relations at a sensitive stage of the negotiations over a final agreement on the nuclear issue.

The Marshall Islands ship sent out a distress signal, and in response, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain ordered the USS Farragut destroyer operating in the Persian Gulf, to hurry to the vicinity of the incident while also dispatching a reconnaissance aircraft to monitor the situation from close-up.

Naval Clashes

Recently, in light of the escalating warfare in Yemen and the capture of large parts of the country by the Iranian-supported Houthis, the United States has begun to monitor Iranian ships. The aim is to prevent them from transferring weapons and other military assistance to the Houthi fighters.7 In response, a convoy of Iranian navy and commercial ships was dispatched in the direction of Yemen, but it was forced to alter its course after the appearance of the U.S. ships.

Strong criticism of the U.S. Navy blocking the Iranian convoy came from two powerful military sources in Iran: Ali Shamkhani,8 secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, former defense minister, and commander of the navies of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian Army, as well as Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi,9 the Iranian army chief of staff (see “Does Iran’s Navy Directly Arm its Jihadi Allies?”).10

The seizure of the Maersk Tigris M/V could be an Iranian signal that it will not countenance the blocking of assistance it seeks to give its Yemeni proxies – the Houthis — and could also be part of the simmering warfare Iran has been waging with Saudi Arabia over influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond. The Saudis refer to the body of water as the “Arabian Gulf.”

A month ago an Iranian reconnaissance aircraft passed provocatively close to an armed MH-60R helicopter from the USS Carl Vinson carrier, part the U.S. fleet. The incident received little media coverage and the United States preferred to play it down,11 claiming it was a local initiative of Iranian commanders.

The Price of Restraint

Iran holds naval exercises near the Straits of Hormuz, sinking a mock-up of the USS Nimitz, an American aircraft carrier. (AFP Photo/Fars News)
Iran holds naval exercises near the Straits of Hormuz, sinking a mock-up of the USS Nimitz, an American aircraft carrier. (AFP Photo/Fars News)

With the backdrop of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks, Washington has opted for restraint in the face of provocations by Iranian ships and aircraft that operate near ships of the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden.  This dovetails with U.S. restraint after a series of belligerent statements by IRGC commanders, who have threatened to sink U.S. ships and send American soldiers home in coffins. Recently – with the nuclear talks at full speed – Iran conducted a large naval exercise in which it sank a mockup of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Here, too, the United States chose not to react.

This time Iran has raised the stakes. Will the United States hold back this time as well?

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1  David B. Crist, Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea, Policy Focus No. 95, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009,…/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf