Navy ships on Thursday began accompanying U.S.-flagged cargo vessels through the Strait of Hormuz in a maritime show of force in response to Iran’s seizure Tuesday of a container ship from the Marshall Islands.
Defense Department officials said Navy ships might also accompany refueling tankers through the strait, but the total number of missions per week are likely to be few.
Still, the new U.S. military operation escalated a maritime cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Teheran that began April 20 when the U.S. dispatched the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier and the USS Normandy guided missile cruiser to shadow a 9-ship Iranian convoy that the Pentagon feared might be carrying weapons to Yemen. The convoy turned back without incident.
The United States has been providing intelligence and aerial refueling for a bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia against Houthi rebels in Yemen who Saudi Arabia claims are receiving weapons from Iran. The campaign began March 26 and has been sharply criticized by United Nations officials and human rights groups for targeting civilians and humanitarian aid missions.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of U.S. European Command, and anonymous Pentagon officials confirmed that the first U.S.-flagged cargo ship was accompanied through the strait on Thursday. The officials did not identify the cargo ship.
The U.S. action, the officials said, consisted of cruising near the vessel and maintaining radio contact with it, but stopped short of a formal escort, in which Navy ships would gather around the vessel in a tight formation to form a protective barrier.
One official said there are enough American ships in the area already to accompany U.S.-flagged vessels and that no additional ships would be sent.
“Navy Central Command will coordinate with shipping industry representatives to ensure accompanying operations are conducted smoothly and efficiently,” the official said. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
The decision to provide security to U.S. flagged vessels came two days after five Iranian coast guard ships ordered the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris to accompany them to Iranian waters as it was trying to pass from the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf through the narrow sea channel that separates Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Speaking in New York on Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the ship had been seized to enforce an Iranian court order requiring its Danish owner to pay a debt to a private Iranian firm. The shipping company reportedly owed $3.6 million.
On Thursday, the ship remained anchored off Larak Island near the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. None of its 30 or so crew members are American.
“We continue to monitor the situation,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
Warren said the U.S. government was “in discussions with Marshall Islands,” a former American possession for which the United States still provides military protection, to determine “the best way ahead.”
The Strait of Hormuz lies in Iranian territorial waters, but it contains internally recognized safe-passage lanes for cargo ships and other maritime craft. After Iran seized the Maersk Tigris, the U.S. ordered a destroyer, the USS Farragut, with three smaller patrol craft, to sail closer to the cargo ship and directed naval aircraft to observe it. But the U.S. ships took no action to prevent the cargo ship’s seizure.