A U.S. Navy destroyer and naval aircraft scrambled closer to Iran on Tuesday after five Iranian coast guard vessels intercepted and detained a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Pentagon said the container vessel, with more than 30 crew members, was in a safe-passage shipping lane within Iranian waters when it was diverted.
The incident underscored tensions that have grown in the area since Saudi Arabia last month began an aerial bombing campaign over Yemen against Houthi rebels, which Saudi Arabia charges are backed by Iran. The Strait of Hormuz connects the Arabian Sea with the Persian Gulf and separates Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which has joined Saudi Arabia in the anti-Houthi campaign.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said one of the Iranian coast guard vessels fired shots across the bow of the Maersk Tigris after its shipmaster refused the first demand to sail toward Iran.
There were no Americans among the 33 to 36 people aboard the cargo ship, Warren said.
“It is inappropriate,” Warren said of the Iranian vessel’s gunfire at the Maersk Tigris.
“The U.S. Navy directed the destroyer USS Farragut to proceed at best speed to the nearest location of the Maersk Tigris,” Warren said. “It further directed aircraft to observe the interaction between the Maersk vessel and the (Iranian coast guard) craft.”
Despite reports from Middle East news agencies that the container vessel had been released, Warren said it was still detained as of 9 p.m. local time, about nine hours after it was detained.
“We don’t know what the cargo was,” Warren told McClatchy. “We don’t know where the ship was bound.”
Warren said the ship was traveling from the Arabian Sea northbound to the Persian Gulf when it was intercepted, so it could have been headed toward Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command was in communication with representatives of Maersk Line, a Danish company that runs one of the world’s biggest cargo-shipping operations.
Warren said the Strait of Hormuz is within Iranian territorial waters but that it has a “heavily traveled” international shipping lane controlled by “innocent passage” rights granting safe transit.
“This is a complex law-of-the-sea issue,” he said. “So we don’t know all the facts yet as to what caused the Iranians to believe that they were justified in these actions.”
It would be standard procedure for the U.S Coast Guard to intercept any foreign-flagged ship that traveled into U.S. waters, Warren said, but not standard procedure to fire shots at the ship.
“Normally, you just ask them to turn around, and if they refuse to turn around, you say, ‘Hey, can we come aboard and see what you’ve got going on,’” Warren said.
The Maersk Tigris is registered in the Marshall Islands, a former U.S. possession in the Pacific Ocean that became independent in 1986 but still receives U.S. military protection and government subsidies.
The cargo ship issued a distress call after it was intercepted by the Iranian coast guard, which the U.S. Navy received.